Seven Questions on Shale Gas Development

I had the fortune of typing up all of the questions that the audience wrote for Dr. Tony Ingraffea last night. There were over thirty and some of them really spoke to some of the issues that we've dealt with on Sustainability Now. So I took the opportunity to take a few of them and put a few of them together and then post them here for us to consider.

1. What are the projected impacts of Utica Shale development?
If you don't know, the Marcellus Shale is only one "unconventional" shale play in Pennsylvania. The Utica Shale is much bigger. It stretches into Quebec and well south of us. It's thousands of feet below Marcellus and holds trillions and trillions more cubic feet of natural gas. Right now, it's not economically viable to get at in Pennsylvania. But my home sits atop and so does my beloved Rothrock State Forest. I have a friendly acquaintance who said, "When I saw the map of the Utica Shale, I felt like an endangered species. It's that big. The impacts will be astronomical.
2. Maybe someone in the audience can explain why Penn State professors are not speaking out on this issue. Is there academic freedom on the issue of gas drilling in Pennsylvania?
This is something of a "myth" as Dr. Ingraffea might call it. There are a lot of prominent people, especially in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences who are quite pro-gas. Dr. Terry Engelder is the most noticed. However, there are several Penn State faculty who have signed a statement that is yet to be released by PennEnvironment that questions the benefit of Marcellus development. I don't know what the status of that signing statement is but I personally know at least two faculty who are signatories.
3. If Central Pennsylvania gas production all comes to fruition, about how many square miles of wells will exist?
You can track existing impacts at sites like FracTracker and the Nature Conservancy's interactive map.
4. Can you comment on the Duke study released on May 9th?
The research in that article finds evidence that there is "methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction" from the Marcellus and Utica shales. "In active gas-extraction areas (one or more gas wells within 1 km), average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well and were 19.2 and 64 mg methane (n = 26), a potential explosion hazard." At distances beyond 1 km they found no such problems. Importantly, the researchers "found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids."

You can read the full article here.
5. Why has science in the US become such a target of hysteria? Can serious policy be developed in such a context?
This question is so important. It is far beyond the scope of this blog to say much about it. But Americans, and particularly conservative Americans (though not exclusively) have real trouble with science and some of the authority it comes to have. There are very serious disputes between segments of the public, politicians, and scientists over a host of things. These include climate change, the theory of evolution, and whether or not immunizations cause autism.

The vast majority of scientists working on climate change recognize that humans burning fossil fuels have forced the climate and are accelerating those climate forcings. Rates, extent, scale, etc. are open to debate. But not the cause. Of course there are people who, for ideological reasons, simply won't believe it. Short term economics are more important so they deny climate change because it's easier than accepting it and still saying economics are more important. Or God wouldn't let it happen so it's something else like sun spots.

How do you construct rational policy in this context? I guess that depends on your definition of rational. If you have to include people's values, attitudes, and beliefs in the calculations of political action, then the rationality of politics in a representative democracy might be fundamentally opposed to the forces of nature and long-term human interest. But they might still be rational.
6. What would responsible development of this resource look like? Can we slow it down?
Dr. Ingraffea spoke to this quite eloquently. At the most basic level, he suggested pressing our elected officials regularly and intelligently. Be organized and effective. Press for regulation. Press for effective restitution for violations. This is a representative democracy right?
7. I am meeting with my state representative next Friday. What 3 things do I need to understand about Marcellus and Utica development to ground my meeting with him?
Note what I said above about regulation, restitution, and pressure. Next Friday May 20th, PennFuture is holding an event with Representative Scott Conklin. I suggest attending. More details pending.

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