Oil and gas operations coexist with environmental management and biodiversity conservation
Common perception has the industry at odds with environmental management and biodiversity conservation.
- Elements Magazine
Common perception has the industry at odds with environmental management and biodiversity conservation. Yet, scientists have found sanctuaries of biodiversity coexist alongside Saudi Aramco’s operating areas.
- Saudi Aramco’s operating areas shelter more than 1,200 km2 of the Kingdom’s most biologically varied areas.
- Eight areas covering 900 km2 have been formally designated “Saudi Aramco Biodiversity Protection Areas.”
- Decades-old biodiversity areas demonstrate one-of-a-kind coexistence of environmental protection, oil and gas, and profitability.
Significantly, some of these onshore operating areas are more than eight decades old. Experts have identified many types of fauna and flora under Saudi Aramco’s protection, including threatened, migratory, and endemic species.
A four-year program completed by environmental scientists earlier this year identified and recorded 285 species of fauna and flora, and found 55, or 19%, of them are “endemic” species or subspecies. Standing in a bird shelter overlooking a company wetland in Saudi Arabia, company terrestrial ecologist Christopher R. Boland says this means around one in five of all plants and animals in these sanctuaries are found only in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Within our communities, within our operating areas, within our reservations we find countless species of birds, reptiles, mammals and plants,” he said. “Many of these species are globally endangered — some occur in Arabia and nowhere else on Earth; others are highly migratory, flying 15,000 km or more to forage at company protected areas.
Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity numbers
bird species - 499
mammal species - 117
reptile species - 107
flowering plant species - 2,400
freshwater fish - 7
Biodiversity depletion increasing
Like many parts of the world, there is a growing loss of biodiversity in Saudi Arabia’s natural and semi-natural habitats. Traditionally nourished by life-giving seasonal rainfall, granules of sand and dust increasingly scatter and shift due to habitat disturbance and loss.
Careless off-road driving, uncontrolled animal grazing, and excessive firewood collection are among the causes degrading many areas of Saudi Arabia’s rangelands and other habitats. The Kingdom is tackling its biodiversity decline through its transformational Saudi Vision 2030 program.
Protected areas have taken on an increasingly important role toward the Kingdom’s long-term biodiversity protection. Alongside this effort, the significance of Saudi Aramco’s biodiversity areas cannot be understated.
More than eight decades
Since operations commenced in 1933, Saudi Aramco has consistently worked to minimize its environmental impact. The company is one of the largest and most profitable in the world, and an example of how oil and gas operations, environmental protection, and profitability can coexist.
Engineering Services vice president Abdullah O. Al Baiz says the study into Saudi Aramco’s biodiversity areas shatters the popular view that oil and gas operations are at odds with environmental management and biodiversity conservation. “Saudi Aramco’s biodiversity areas show oil and gas operations coexisting with environmental management and biodiversity conservation, says Baez.
Saudi Aramco’s biodiversity areas show oil and gas operations coexisting with environmental management and biodiversity conservation.” - Engineering Services vice president Abdullah O. Al Baiz
Saudi Aramco Biodiversity Protection Area
At least 18 biodiversity shelters were documented across onshore operating sites, and the collection of plant and animal life under the company’s protection encompasses an area of over 1,200 km2. Eight areas have been formally designated “Saudi Aramco Biodiversity Protection Areas,” and these total 900 km2.
A company procedure is followed to assign a biodiversity protection area, which requires a third-party consultant to confirm that a site is of sufficient ecological quality to warrant the designation. A site is considered if it contains one or more species that are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, or two or more species that are listed as near threatened by the International Union for Nature Conservation’s red list of threatened species.
Included among other criteria is containing two or more species that are listed as a high conservation priority by the Saudi Arabian government, or containing one or more species endemic to the Arabian Peninsula, frequently containing migratory bird species, or the potential to benefit the education and well-being of local residents.
Within the lower slopes of Saudi Arabia’s mighty southwest mountain range, Saudi Aramco’s 49 km2 working Abha site thrives with some of the planet’s most precious biodiversity. The site is a nationally significant wilderness area within one of the most biologically important landscapes on Earth, the Asir.
An estimated 120 species of migrating birds are likely to use the site throughout the year. Two overpowering factors contribute to the near-pristine wilderness found at Abha. A 50 km, 2.5 meter high security fence isolating the area from human activity and uncontrolled grazing by domestic animals, and a mild and nurturing climate is the second factor.
The Asir is a vulnerable landscape and home to Saudi Arabia’s only endemic bird, the highly endangered Asir magpie whose estimated numbers have dwindled to merely 130 breeding pairs. Saudi Aramco has partnered with the Saudi Wildlife Authority and Smithsonian Institution to conduct research into the magpie’s perilous status.
Bringing back species from the brink
At Saudi Aramco’s operating Shaybah site, biodiversity is being dramatically returned to the largest uninterrupted expanse of sand desert in the world — the vastly beautiful Rub’ al-Khali. Next to the site’s facilities, a 104-km long fence protects a 637 km2 sanctuary of 10 native plant species, and potentially 13 reptile, 18 mammal, and 176 bird species, including 169 migratory species.
In a highly ambitious conservation project, Saudi Aramco and partners reintroduced three endangered species that historically inhabited the Empty Quarter — the Arabian oryx, sand gazelle, and ostrich. For the first time in decades, freedom was reborn for these iconic Arabian creatures to roam the red desert sand dunes once again.
Saudi Aramco is also behind reforestation programs, having already planted 2.2 million mangrove trees along the Arabian Gulf coastline, with the target to plant a further 1 million native desert trees Kingdomwide by 2025. Boland says he finds some of the best habitat in the Kingdom occurs on Saudi Aramco land.
“Many people are astonished when they learn just how much biodiversity exists in Saudi Arabia,” said Boland. “When it comes to biodiversity, the desert is not deserted — the Empty Quarter is not empty. Through its fenced areas and environmental initiatives, Saudi Aramco is playing a major role in protecting and restoring our wildlife for future generations, which is something the company can be immensely proud of.”
Protect our environment
1. Plant a native tree
2. Never litter
4. Eat less meat
5. Learn about the environment