Special Issue: Understanding the Risks of Unconventional Shale Gas Development – Environmental Science & Technology (ACS Publications)

pecial Issue: Understanding the Risks of Unconventional Shale Gas Development

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Paul C. Stern †, Thomas Webler ‡, and Mitchell J. Small *§

† National Research Council, Board on Environmental Change and Society, Washington, DC 20001, United States

‡ Research Fellow, Social and Environmental Research Institute, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002, United States

§ H. John Heinz III Professor of Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, United States

Environ. Sci. Technol., 2014, 48 (15), pp 8287–8288

DOI: 10.1021/es502459b

Publication Date (Web): August 5, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

*E-mail: ms35@andrew.cmu.edu.

Advances in methods for hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and related technologies that enable the recovery of natural gas and oil from deep shale formations have been ongoing for decades. However, it is primarily in the past few years that the evolution of this technology and its more widespread deployment in areas unaccustomed to recent oil and gas activity, such as in the eastern United States, has led to concern and controversy. Proponents argue that the shale gas revolution has enabled a new era of clean domestic energy, bringing significant economic benefits and jobs to those who need them and reducing U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while posing modest environmental risks similar to those of other natural gas and energy development technologies. Furthermore, they believe these risks to be well-managed by the current mix of drillers and operators utilizing ongoing improvements in technology and industry standards for best practice, together with the current set of governmental regulations.

In contrast, opponents of “fracking” argue that it poses significant upstream, operational and downstream risks, and is currently implemented with inadequate safeguards and monitoring to protect against multiple environmental, human health, and socioeconomic impacts. They maintain that GHG emissions may increase in the long term due to shale gas, and that the emerging system of non-Federal (state-based) regulation in the U.S. exhibits high variability and inconsistency across states, with inadequate capacity for effective tracking, coordination and oversight of risks.

Is there sufficient experience and scientific evidence to support or refute these opposing claims and narratives? Where is additional research most needed to provide the critical knowledge for improved understanding and management of shale gas technology, its risks, and its governance?

Given the rapidly evolving technology and deployment of unconventional shale gas drilling, an assessment of the current state of knowledge of its risks and governance elements–and how they interact over different spatial, temporal, and organizational scales–is critically needed. The objective of this special issue is to begin to provide such an assessment. The papers in this issue were derived from two workshops organized in 2013 at the U.S. National Research Council (NRC), the first on risks and the second on risk governance. With support from the National Science Foundation, the Park Foundation, and Shell Upstream America, the NRC assembled a committee to plan the workshops and invited scholars and practitioners from academia, oil and gas companies, and state, federal and local agencies. The presentations at the workshops and the resulting collection of papers in this special issue review and assess the depth and breadth of science behind risk and risk governance approaches that academics, industry professionals and governmental regulators are beginning to bring to bear on this technology, which extends well beyond the confines of any single field of environmental science. The insights presented here include those of leading water, air and ecosystem scientists, geologists, engineers, health scientists, economists, social scientists, and experts in law and political science. ES&T provides an especially appropriate venue for such a special issue, given its broad and leading coverage of environmental science, engineering, and policy.

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