The Fossil Fuel Atlas draws on an extensive scientific literature about the effects of fossil fuel and other extractive industries, and a rigorous methodology for identifying and visualising threats and potential impacts. These are described in the peer-reviewed Fossil Fuel Atlas Global Brief, summarised below.


Fossil fuels account for over three-fourths of greenhouse gas emissions (IEA, 2021). This is fuelling a climate crisis that is projected to devastate social and ecological systems across the globe (IPCC, 2022; Rinawati et al., 2013).

Fossil fuel production is already at a historic high, and is poised to continue growing (SEI and UNEP, 2021). Many of the reserves targeted for extraction lie in highly sensitive ecological areas (Harfoot et al., 2018), and global fossil fuel production is known to have myriad adverse impacts on people and the environment (Butt et al., 2013).

In view of the extent of the adverse social, ecological and climatic threats of fossil fuel production, the Fossil Fuel Atlas project is systematizing an approach for creating rapid, scientifically grounded map visuals that make transparent the potential threats posed by prospective fossil fuel production projects.

Fossil Fuels: Driving the Ecological and Climate Crisis

The Fossil Fuel Atlas draws on an extensive scientific literature about the effects of fossil fuel and other extractive industries.

Biodiversity and ecosystem threats – Land

Fossil fuel exploration, construction, and other production processes often involve razing forest and vegetation cover to make room for infrastructure (Harfoot et al., 2018). This can adversely alter ecosystem species compositions, nutrient cycling, and the local water cycle (Seymour & Harris, 2019). Fragmentation, caused by construction of roads and pipelines, is an insidious form of landscape alteration that affects gene flow, habitat area, and even nutrient cycling and biomass storage (Dinerstein et al., 2019). The impacts of deforestation and fragmentation are particularly severe for the atypical fossil fuels like shale gas and tar sands mining, which tend to have expansive physical footprints (Gonzalez, 2016; Kuwayama et al., 2013; Rosa et al., 2017).

(Agbagwa & Ndukwu, 2014; Butt et al., 2013; Copeland et al., 2009; Dean et al., 2019; Dinerstein et al., 2019; Gonzalez, 2016; Haddad et al., 2015; Harfoot et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2015; Krauss et al., 2010; Kuwayama et al., 2013; Nasen et al., 2011; Rosa et al., 2017; Seymour & Harris, 2019; Zemp et al., 2017)

Invasives transported into ecosystems during exploration, construction, and other steps in fossil fuel production can destroy native species, triggering cascades of repercussions that reduce ecosystem integrity and biodiversity. The soil disturbance and long-term vehicle traffic inherent to fossil fuel development increases the risk of invasive species for many years after construction is complete (Brooks, 2007; Preston, 2015).

(Brooks, 2007; Jones et al., 2015; Preston, 2015)

Biodiversity and ecosystem threats – Water

Pipeline spills can propagate over large distances by rivers and streams, and it can spread in groundwater for years without discovery (Kammoun et al., 2020). When oil releases over land infiltrate surface and groundwater, it can lead to adverse impacts on flora and fauna that last for decades to centuries (Manshoori, 2011). Oil spills in marine ecosystems, especially in sensitive coastal, estuarine and mangrove ecosystems, can cause long-term and even permanent ecological damage (Moreno et al., 2013; Zabbey & Olsson, 2017). When oil spills permeate mangroves, the root system dies and the mud that supported them is washed out to sea, making restoration incredibly difficult (Jernelöv, 2010). The impacts of chronic small oil spills, which are ubiquitous offshore and onshore but rarely receive attention, are at least as devastating for ecosystems as large spills (Redondo & Platonov, 2009).

(Haddad et al., 2015; Jernelöv, 2010; Kammoun et al., 2020; Manshoori, 2011; Moreno et al., 2013; Nelson & Grubesic, 2018; Redondo & Platonov, 2009; Snowden & Ekweozor, 1987; Zabbey & Olsson, 2017)

Conventional oil, gas, and coal extraction all release enormous volumes of produced water, a liquid that typically contains hydrogen sulfide, hydrocarbon residues, various heavy metals, and high concentrations of salts (Yusta-García et al., 2017). Tar sands and coal mining both produce tailings, a liquid containing hydrocarbons, heavy metals, arsenic, and other toxic substances (L. Allen et al., 2011). Even when properly disposed of in open ‘tailing ponds,’ they adversely impact ecosystems from both direct contact and leaching into surface and groundwater (Jordaan, 2012; Kuwayama et al., 2013). Solid waste from both shale oil and coal mining—surface and underground alike—are known to poison water supplies: for example, ninety four percent of carcinogens released during coal production are emitted to water, posing immense threats to exposed ecosystems (L. Allen et al., 2011; Epstein et al., 2011).

(L. Allen et al., 2011; Epstein et al., 2011; Jordaan, 2012; Kuwayama et al., 2013; Vidic et al., 2013; Yusta-García et al., 2017)

The water footprint of fossil fuel production can be extensive (Jordaan, 2012). Up to seven million gallons of water are extracted to drill a single conventional oil or gas well (Jones et al., 2015), and unconventional fossil fuel production (e.g. tar sands and shale gas extraction) can have even greater impacts on water availability for ecosystems (Kuwayama et al., 2015).

(L. Allen et al., 2011; Jones et al., 2015; Jordaan, 2012; Kuwayama et al., 2013, 2015; Rosa et al., 2018)

Biodiversity and ecosystem threats – Air

Air pollutants from fossil fuel production such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and VOC’s adversely impact ecosystems in many ways. Gas flaring across the Niger Delta induced acid rain that destroyed forests and led to biodiversity loss (Ejiba et al., 2016). Other sources, including unconventional oil and gas, conventional fuel extraction, and oil refineries release a whole host of air pollutants that damage proximal ecosystems (D. T. Allen, 2016; Hitaj et al., 2020). Air also contains a vast array of biological information in the form of chemical messengers, temperature, and humidity, changes in which can build on the myriad other ecological impacts of fossil fuel production.

(D. T. Allen, 2016; Alshahri & El-Taher, 2018; Bamberger & Oswald, 2014; DeLuchi, 1993; Ejiba et al., 2016; Hitaj et al., 2014, 2020; Jung et al., 2013; Rajabi et al., 2020)

Vehicle traffic, drilling rigs, fracking operations, freighters, flare stacks, generators, landscape conversion, and mining operations are some of the many sources of noise and light pollution accompanying fossil fuel production (Jones et al., 2015). The changes in species’ behavior, population sizes and habitat preferences caused by noise pollution can have cascading impacts that degrade ecosystem integrity and biodiversity in marine and inland environments alike (Bayne et al., 2008).

(Barber et al., 2011; Bayne et al., 2008; Brooks, 2007; Dean et al., 2019; Jones et al., 2015)

Social threats and impacts

Fossil fuel extraction and production often bypasses explicit and traditional indigenous land rights (Temper, 2019). The destruction of nature in these areas can cause all of the impacts described below, but it can also be a form of cultural dispossession, as well as a mode of dispossession of indigenous identities (Acuña, 2015). Protests against the destruction wrought by fossil fuel production are often met with corporate and state-sponsored violence against indigenous peoples (Muttitt & Kartha, 2020). Additionally, formally and traditionally recognized indigenous lands are often ecologically rich and contain at least 22% (217,991 MtC) of global forest carbon (Rights and Resources Initiative, 2018).

(Acuña, 2015; Jonasson et al., 2019; Kraushaar-Friesen & Busch, 2020; Murrey, 2015; Muttitt & Kartha, 2020; Rights and Resources Initiative, 2018; Temper, 2019)

Approximately 2.5 billion people depend on healthy forests and other types of ecosystem for their livelihoods (Rights and Resources Initiative, 2018). Oil spills can decimate fish populations, undermining fishing for subsistence ; deforestation and fragmentation can drive away game for hunting and eliminate plants used for medicine and food; and the modification of the local landscape can damage important sources of culture and identity (Ejiba et al., 2016; Manshoori, 2011). As with their ecological counterparts, these impacts often produce long-term consequences such as parents not being able to afford to send their children to school due to economic losses from fossil fuel production’s impacts (Pegg & Zabbey, 2013).

(Ejiba et al., 2016; Haddad et al., 2015; Manshoori, 2011; Pegg & Zabbey, 2013; Rights and Resources Initiative, 2018)

The depletion of water resources for fossil fuel extraction has adverse impacts on nearby communities. Approximately 31-44% of unexploited oil and gas deposits lie in areas of water stress or areas that would become water stressed with fossil fuel extraction (Rosa et al., 2018). Water use for coal and unconventional fossil fuel production can also limit water availability, threatening nearby communities that depend on reliable sources of freshwater and the ecosystems supported by that water (Epstein et al., 2011; Kuwayama et al., 2015; Rosa et al., 2017, 2018). Landscape alteration from fossil fuel production, as well as the release of oil, produced water, tailings, and other substances, can degrade water quality with commensurate impacts on human health (L. Allen et al., 2011).

(D. T. Allen, 2016; Ejiba et al., 2016; Epstein et al., 2011; Haddad et al., 2015; Jones et al., 2015; Kuwayama et al., 2015; Manshoori, 2011; Pegg & Zabbey, 2013; Rosa et al., 2017, 2018; Yusta-García et al., 2017)

Fossil fuel production can lead to acute and chronic exposure to arsenic, heavy metals, and other contaminants that degrade human health. Fossil fuel production increases the risk of cancer-related mortality and a variety of health conditions caused by exposure via air or consumption of water, plants, animals products contaminated with oil, produced water, and other wastes (L. Allen et al., 2011; Epstein et al., 2011). Exposure to both oil spills and pollution from oil refineries has been shown to increase the prevalence of respiratory problems, abortions, skin diseases, cancers, and self-perceptions of poor health (Khatatbeh et al., 2020; Manshoori, 2011). Were a large oil spill to enter a major freshwater source (such as Lake Victoria, which supplies water for 30 million people) the consequences for human health would be catastrophic. Simply living near a coal mine has been shown to cause preterm birth and birth defects, decrease scores on neurological tests, worsen diabetes, and increase mortality from heart, respiratory, and kidney disease, lung cancer (Epstein et al., 2011). As with the impacts of fossil fuel production on agriculture, health impacts can have further consequences for the livelihoods of those directly exposed as well as for their offspring and wider community (Bruederle & Hodler, 2017; Karadžinska-Bislimovska et al., 2010; Khatatbeh et al., 2020).

(Abbas et al., 2010; Adgate et al., 2014; Bruederle & Hodler, 2017; Epstein et al., 2011; Johnston et al., 2019; Karadžinska-Bislimovska et al., 2010; Khatatbeh et al., 2020; Manshoori, 2011; Wilke & Freeman, 2017)

Billions of people depend on agriculture for subsistence and income. Oil spills, air pollutants, produced water, and invasive species (to name but a few) poison crops and reduce overall yields (Ejiba et al., 2016; Pegg & Zabbey, 2013). Oil and liquid pollution infiltrate agricultural soils, reducing their technical efficiency for many years, and invasive species can make growing native crops virtually impossible (Ejiba et al., 2016).

(Abbas et al., 2010; Ejiba et al., 2016; Hitaj et al., 2014; Manshoori, 2011; Measham et al., 2016; Pegg & Zabbey, 2013)

Methodology: Identifying and Visualising the Threats of Fossil Fuel Production

Identifying threats such as these is a first step in addressing them.

Conventional risk assessment methods for activities like fossil fuel development are data-intensive and time-consuming. Public participation in these assessments is often limited to reviewing technical reports, raising concerns well after projects have started gaining momentum. There’s a need for a more accessible approach to assess fossil fuel threats.

To address this, the Fossil Fuel Atlas is piloting a user-friendly GIS-based method for rapidly identifying threats from prospective fossil fuel and extractive sites and infrastructure. It complements traditional risk assessments and provides stakeholders with early insights into potential risks.

This approach can support scientific research, civil society efforts, and decision-making. It consolidates freely available spatial data with the aim of making it widely accessible, allowing stakeholders to identify and voice concerns backed by scientific data before projects secure funding and government support.

In summary, the main methodological steps in this process include:

Rapid Spatial Threat Assessment Methodology

Working directly with stakeholders to identify threats or impacts of concern. Concerns can include legal conflicts, social and ecological threats, contributions to global threats, such as biodiversity loss or climate change, potential risk multipliers such as seismic risks, or other factors. Stakeholders should take the lead in identifying their concerns and determining how mapping and data visualisation could support their efforts and strategies.

Selecting the appropriate spatial datasets for the assessment, enriching the data as necessary. In light of the concerns and strategies identified, define the spatial location and draw on the datasets in the Fossil Fuel Atlas to identify the appropriate fossil fuel, energy, social and ecological datasets to examine.

Overlaying fossil fuel or other extractive data with ecological and social data to identify threats. Use the Fossil Fuel Atlas to layer the datasets, produce a visual map, and refine to show specific subsets of data by attribute or geographic location.

Making threats and potential impacts visually explicit through maps, visualisations and other means. Change the colours, outlines, symbols and other visual elements to create visually appealing and powerful maps and data visualisations.

Assembling a final product based on intended use. Display maps and data visualisations on the Fossil Fuel Atlas and export them for use in geo-stories, websites, blog posts, documents and other materials.

Role of the Fossil Fuel Atlas

Drawing on this methodology, the Fossil Fuel Atlas aims to help a wider range of people to better understand, predict and avert these impacts, through rapid threat identification and the open-access data, mapping and visualisation tools on the platform.

The transparency tools here complement other important transparency platforms addressing fossil fuels, energy, biodiversity, climate change and related topics, with whom we are working.

For additional information on the methodology underpinning the Fossil Fuel Atlas please refer to the background Fossil Fuel Atlas Global Brief.