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Landsat time series analysis of fractional plant cover changes on abandoned energy development sites

July 18, 2018

Oil and natural gas development in the western United States has increased substantially in recent decades as technological advances like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have made extraction more commercially viable. Oil and gas pads are often developed for production, and then capped, reclaimed, and left to recover when no longer productive. Understanding the rates, controls, and degree of recovery of these reclaimed well sites to a state similar to pre-development conditions is critical for energy development and land management decision processes. Here we use a multi-decadal time series of satellite imagery (Landsat 5, 1984–2011) to assess vegetation regrowth on 365 abandoned well pads located across the Colorado Plateau in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. We developed high-frequency time series of the Soil-Adjusted Total Vegetation Index (SATVI) for each well pad using the Google Earth Engine cloud computing platform. BFAST time-series models were used to fit temporal trends, identifying when vegetation was cleared from the site and the magnitudes and rates of vegetation change after abandonment. The time series metrics are used to calculate the relative fractional vegetation cover (RFVC) of each pad, a measure of post-abandonment vegetation cover relative to pre-drilling condition. Mean and median RFVC were 36% (s.d. 33%) and 26%, respectively, five years after abandonment, with one third of well pads having RFVC greater than 50%. Statistical analyses suggest that much of the high vegetation cover is associated with weedy invasive annual species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian thistle (Salsola spp.). Climate conditions and the year of abandonment also play a role, with increased cover in later years associated with a wetter period. Non-linear change at many pads suggests longer recovery times than would be estimated by linear extrapolation. New techniques implemented here address a complex response of cover change to soils, management, and climate over time, and can be extended to the operational monitoring of energy development across large areas.