"The hydrocarbon frontier keeps pushing deeper into the Amazon," said lead author Matt Finer of the Amazon Conservation Association. "There needs to be a strategic plan for how future development takes place in regards to roads."
Oil and gas roads are considered major drivers of deforestation, especially in pristine places. Research has long shown that whenever an access road is built into the Amazon, destruction follows, including illegal logging, overhunting, slash-and-burn agriculture, and colonization.
"Furthermore, in the Amazon, oil and gas projects keep expanding into extremely remote locales, and so new access roads have the potential to open up some of the most intact remaining forests on Earth," Finer told mongabay.com. "One of our key findings in the paper is that there are at least 35 hydrocarbon discoveries across the western Amazon that have not been developed yet, and this number will surely grow as exploration continues. If each one brings with it a new access road system, some of the last remaining Amazon wilderness areas could be in trouble."
Oil and gas blocks in the Western Amazon. Click image to enlarge.
Bolivia is behind almost half of the total expansion of oil and gas blocks in the region since 2008. In addition, Bolivia is one of two countries in the region—Ecuador as well—where fossil fuel extraction is allowed even in national parks.
"Bolivia has been aggressively creating new hydrocarbon concessions in its core Amazon area....They are currently finishing the drilling of an exploratory well (Lliquimuni) that could mark the first major hydrocarbon discovery in the Bolivian Amazon," said Finer. "If so, that could be a big game changer in Bolivia, bringing major hydrocarbon development to the [Bolivian] Amazon for first time."
In all, the study found documented 35 confirmed or suspected new oil and gas discoveries, especially in eastern Ecuador, northern Peru, and in the Brazilian state of Amazonas.
"Moreover, additional new discoveries are likely in coming years as all five countries aggressively promote increased exploration," the researchers write in the paper.
However, according to their findings, the massive impacts of oil and gas production could be mitigated—if not wholly eliminated—if governments and companies started treating the Amazon like off-shore oil and gas in the oceans.
"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," said co-author and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, now a fellow with the Blue Moon Fund. "It essentially signifies roadless development."