Marcellus Shale Science this Week
By Robert Ross
This week PRI announced the receipt of a $100,000 grant from the
National Science Foundation (NSF) to support our ongoing educational
outreach efforts around the Marcellus Shale. For the past year, PRI has
been part of a collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE)
and Cornell's Water Resources Institute, the goal of which was to help
landowners and governmental officials in the Southern Tier of New York
understand some of the scientific, environmental, economic, and social
issues surrounding potential drilling for and production of natural gas
from the Marcellus Shale. The new funds from NSF will allow PRI to
expand on this effort by producing more comprehensive educational
materials on many science-related aspects of the Marcellus. We plan that
these materials will begin to become available this summer.
Meanwhile, of course, discussion and decisions continue to take place regarding the Marcellus. For example, this week, the Tompkins County Legislature voted for a resolution that urges New York State to ban hydraulic fracturing operations pending further independent scientific assessments -- including a study from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and research on the life-cycle assessments of greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing shale gas, and the social and economic impacts of the industry.
The rapid pace of events connected to Marcellus Shale gas development, the heated emotions that surround some public discussions, and the very real and immediate need for government officials and members of the public to make informed decisions, make any effort at unbiased public educational outreach very challenging. From the very beginning, CCE and PRI have been simultaneously praised for bringing information to the public and criticized for not bringing the "right" information. This comes with the territory of such a controversial issue. But it also touches on some fundamental aspects of how science works, how the public understands it, and how it can and should be communicated beyond scientists themselves.
Earlier this week I was interviewed about the new NSF grant on WHCU radio's Morning Report by host Dave Viezer. And a few minutes later, County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson was interviewed about the vote to ban hydraulic fracturing operations until the EPA assessment. After discussing the vote, she expressed great concern about PRI's Marcellus Shale website and general approach to the topic. Her comments highlight several important points that we will all need to understand and think about as this important issue develops.
What Ms. Robertson remarked upon was the "resources" part of the PRI Marcellus website, which was a list of links to other websites that she considered to be biased. Firstly, I should note that the short list of resources we had on our website was a work in progress, and we accept responsibility for not having made this clear and having consequently been perceived as biased; we only recently started the grant and had not yet developed a monitored system for which links to present. The two critiques Ms. Robertson made, however, are a useful segue for exploring what how science is done and presented, and how we should treat Marcellus drilling-related topics about which there is great scientific uncertainty.
The first critique referred to the life-cycle assessment of drilling in tight shales with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. Our resources list included a blog entry by Cornell Professor Richard Allmendinger in which he summarized and discussed scientific results -- published by others -- to the effect that production, transport, and combustion of natural gas from conventional drilling releases less into the atmosphere than burning coal to produce the same amount of energy. This conclusion, however, is not agreed upon by all scientists, and may not apply to the sort of unconventional drilling that would be used in the Marcellus Shale. The list did not include a reference to work by another Cornell professor, Robert Howarth. Dr. Howarth has been investigating the potential greenhouse effects of natural gas development throughout its "life cycle" -- that is, from drilling through to burning. The main component of natural gas (methane) is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and during drilling , production, and transport of natural gas, a certain amount of methane is released directly to the atmosphere where it adds to the greenhouse effect. Further, extracting the gas from shale takes more energy – and releases more CO2 when using this energy – than does extraction from conventional sources.
This controversy surrounding life cycle analysis raises an important issue regarding the pace of science versus the pace of demand for information for decision making. Because of the significance of the issue, in late fall Dr. Howarth began researching the life cycle of carbon emissions associated with natural gas drilling. In March he wrote a progress report on his work that became widely distributed over the internet. In the meantime he has continued his work and posted a revised version (linked to here) and he plans to submit a version to a peer-reviewed scientific journal within the coming months.
Because of the limited scientific investigation to date, rather little is known about the emissions of greenhouse gasses from extraction of gas from shale formations like the Marcellus, and no scientific consensus exists on this particular issue. Responding to this poor knowledge base, the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, in early May wrote a letter to senior government officials and legislators in Washington stating that before any shale-gas is further developed, “prior thorough science-based studies are required to evaluate the impact of massive shale development on rural land uses, water supply and quality, and full life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.”
The other critique was that on our resources page we had included resources from industry claiming that the water used in local drilling will be recycled, and that we should have included other information from Cornell Professor Anthony Ingraffea, who has been active in increasing awareness of the lack of adequate waste water solutions. Water use and recycling is, indeed, an essential issue that deserves our attention. Perhaps the one area of agreement of all concerned, including those in our community who are most knowledgeable about the topic, is that waste water remains an unknown, with a great deal of apparently conflicting available information. Our challenge in this case will be working with a wide variety of individuals, from environmental advocates to water treatment experts to those most familiar with drilling, to separate what is likely from what may be heresay.
Our goal going forward will be to provide the best quality information available, but also to help provide insight into why certain kinds of information are considered tentative or unreliable, and what kinds of data and modeling must be done before we can address some topics with confidence.