skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Amy Mall’s Blog

Oil and gas operations "a death sentence for soil"

Amy Mall

Posted May 4, 2014

, , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

Today's Denver Post has a very important story about the toll that oil and gas production is taking on soil.

Soil sounds like a really boring topic. But, as the Soil Science Society of America says: "soils sustain life." According to the Society, "soil supports and nourishes the plants that we eat" and that livestock eat, soil "filters and purifies much of the water we drink," "soils teem with microorganisms that have given us many life-saving medications," and "Protecting soil from erosion helps reduce the amount of air-borne dust we breathe."

According to the Post:

  • At least 716,982 gallons (45 percent) of the petroleum chemicals spilled during the past decade in Colorado have stayed in the ground after initial cleanup — contaminating soil, sometimes spreading into groundwater.
  • Oil and gas drilling produces up to 500 tons of dirt from every new well, some of it soaked with hydrocarbons and laced with potentially toxic minerals and salts.
  • Heavy trucks crush soil, "suffocating the delicate subsurface ecosystems that traditionally made Colorado's Front Range suitable for farming."

These impacts from the tens of thousands of wells in Colorado alone led a Colorado soil scientist to state that oil and gas operations are "like a death sentence for soil."

The Post points out that no federal or state agency has ever assessed the impact of the oil and gas boom on soil and on human health.

Share | | |


Michael BerndtsonMay 5 2014 08:39 AM

Well done. There's only so much soil.

Oil and gas relies on risk based corrective action (RBCA) or "Rebecca." Each state has developed its own methods to apply RBCA for addressing cleanup of spills from petroleum facilities be it underground storage tanks, pipelines or well fields. So its a state lead thing. For instance Illinois renamed rebecca as "Taco" or Tiered Approach to Corrective-Action Objectives.

So why does this matter? It basically establishes how much spill can remain in the soil and underlying groundwater with respect to spreading (fate and transport) and contact by someone via drinking, touching, breathing, etc. It makes sense for some sites. My concern is that agriculture land could be redefined for industrial use, with the proliferation of oil and gas development by fracking.

Cleanup is dependent upon declaration of land use, i.e. residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial. And differential equations for modeling the movement of a hydrocarbon through porous media via bulk transport, diffusion, adsorption/desorption etc. And all the while hoping mother nature's soil and groundwater bacteria find the hydrocarbon molecules tasty.

Some info for whatever its worth:

US EPA Risk-Based Decision-Making

Risk-Based Corrective Action (RBCA) Applied at Petroleum Release Sites

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Amy Mall’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In