The western Amazon--a vast region encompassing the Amazonian portions of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and western Brazil--is one of the world's last high-biodiversity wilderness landscapes. It is also home to an active hydrocarbon (oil and gas) sector, characterized by operations in extremely remote areas that require new access routes.
In a new study published today in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers present the first integrated analysis of the hydrocarbon sector and its associated access road-building in the western Amazon.
"The key finding of the study is that the hydrocarbon frontier keeps pushing deeper into the Amazon and there needs to be a strategic plan for how future development takes place in regards to roads," lead author Matt Finer of the Amazon Conservation Association. "We pay particular attention to access roads because they are a well-documented primary driver of deforestation and forest degradation."
The study finds that western Amazonian oil and gas blocks now cover over 730,000 km2, an area much larger than the U.S. state of Texas. Moreover, the coverage of these hydrocarbon blocks has expanded 150,000 km2 since the last assessment in 2008.
The key additional question posed by this study is whether this expanding hydrocarbon frontier is also leading to new, and potentially destructive, access roads.
"An established alternative to building new access roads is the offshore inland development model," said co-author and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, now a fellow at the blue moon fund. "This model treats the forest as an ocean where access roads are not a possibility and the drilling platform is essentially an island in the forest accessed only by helicopter and/or river transport. It essentially signifies roadless development."
The study reports that, of the current major hydrocarbon projects in the western Amazon, 11 have access roads while 6 are roadless and, therefore, generally fit the offshore inland development model.
Futhermore, the study documents 35 confirmed and/or suspected hydrocarbon discoveries across the western Amazon that have not yet been developed. What happens to these discoveries could play a large role in the future of western Amazon.
"This study documents numerous operational examples of the offshore inland model," added Babbitt. "What we need now is government and company commitments to ensure all future hydrocarbon development follows this model and moves beyond building more access roads deeper into the Amazon."