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Published May 3, 2013 08:42 AM

Is it possible to reduce the impact of oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest?

Oil extraction in the Amazon rainforest has been linked to severe environmental degradation — including deforestation and pollution — which in some areas has spurred violent social conflict. Yet a vast extent of the Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Bolivian, and Brazilian Amazon is currently under concession for oil and gas exploration and production — hundreds of billions of dollars are potentially at stake. It seems clear that much of this hydrocarbon development is going to proceed whether environmentalists and human rights groups like it or not.

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A new paper, published in the journal PLoS ONE, argues that some of the most harmful effects of oil and gas drilling can be mitigated through a set of comprehensive guidelines. This framework includes both "engineering-based criteria and key ecological and social factors", according to the authors, who have worked extensively on documenting the extent and impact of energy development in the region.

Less damaging oil and gas development starts at the planning phase, argues the paper, which uses the department of Loreto in northeastern Peru as a case study.

"The vast majority of planned drilling wells, production platforms and pipeline routes overlap sensitive areas such as protected areas, indigenous territories, critical ecosystems and vital watersheds," said Clinton Jenkins, a North Carolina State University biologist and co-author of the study. "Identifying these types of potentially conflictive overlaps early in the planning process is essential to avoiding future conflicts."

"Loreto makes an ideal case study because it is one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. Following the state of emergency, there is an added urgency to develop methods to minimize the impacts of any future development," added study lead author Dr. Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law. "We developed such a method that identifies specific areas where the use of best practice would drastically reduce impacts."

The paper goes on to list several techniques for reducing the impacts of operations. For example, extended reach drilling (ERD) would allow developers to greatly reduce the number of drill holes, access roads, and infrastructure without sacrificing production. A broader ban on new access roads and reduced pipeline right-of-way could cut project-related deforestation by 75 percent.

Surprisingly these measures would not add substantially to the overall cost relative to conventional drilling. In some cases, it could even reduce costs, by cutting the need for infrastructure and repairing environmental damage.

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Read the research paper at PLOS ONE.

Oil drilling image via Shutterstock.

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