Small gives thoughts on environmental impact of fracking

Mitchell Small, H. John Heinz professor of civil and environmental engineering, weighed in on the controversial issue of fracking in a webinar for weekly magazine Engineering-News Record last Wednesday.

The webinar, “Oil and Gas Production from Shale, Opportunities & Risks,” focused on the challenges and opportunities presented by the relatively new process of natural gas extraction from shale.

According to the webinar’s description, “The discovery of vast reserves of natural gas embedded in shale plays across the nation has both transformed the energy debate in the United States and created enormous controversy.”

The process of extracting natural gas from shale, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, raised concerns in environmental, social, and economic domains. Fracking also presents many opportunities for growth in domestic energy production through the extraction of previously unreachable natural gas deposits.

The description for the webinar explains, “Although the oil and gas reserves in the shale formations represent huge potential to provide a home-grown source of energy, as well as a wide array of construction, engineering and production jobs, those who work in the industry bear great responsibility to ensure that drilling, extraction, and production of natural gas and oil are done without causing harm to participants or to the environment, particularly the water supply and air quality.”

Pam Hunter, associate editor of Engineering News-Record for Environmental Issues and moderator of the webinar, said, “The discovery of large oil and natural gas reserves in the United States has changed and transformed the nation’s energy landscape. The opportunities for economic growth and stability are enormous, but with the potential of some environmental risks if the proper precautions are not taken.”

Small, who chairs the National Research Council (NRC) panel studying risk management and governance issues in shale gas extraction, summarized the panel’s discussions on shale gas extraction and highlighted the potential risks and benefits of the process. Small’s research at Carnegie Mellon, according to the webinar description, “spans mathematical modeling and monitoring of environmental systems, uncertainty, and risks.”

Small specifically pointed out seven potential problems with fracking, including operational risks, degradation of water and air quality, global climate change, ecological impacts, human health impacts, and social impacts. He cited projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that predicted a large increase in the use of natural gas driven by shale extraction over the next 25 to 30 years, while other methods of obtaining natural gas will stay level or even decline. Small discussed the impact that cheaper, more available energy could have in the United States.

His focus was also on fracking’s environmental impacts, including on water quality and air quality.

The fracking process can also create methane leakages, which contribute to global climate change.

Fracking presents many governance issues. According to Small, the industry lacks federal oversight, leaving much of the control in the hands of state and local governments. This has important implications for how the process will affect nearby communities, economically and socially.

“The oil and gas industry is largely exempt from federal environmental regulation…. Most of the action is at the state level, and the question is, how do you have effective coordination between state and local governance, as well as industry self-governance, and what role do local communities, environmental groups, et cetera play in the overall process?” Small asked.
Fracking also carries possible benefits.

It has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional coal, meaning that substituting natural gas from shale extraction for coal produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Small also summarized his personal viewpoints in two workshops hosted by the NRC panel.

The first panel was on the risks of unconventional shale gas development, while the second focused on governance risks of unconventional shale development, or the regulation issues created by shale development and its current lack of oversight.

Small stressed that the committees were not meant to reach an absolute consensus, and that they comprise members’ separate opinions.

On his slide about the first workshop, Small wrote that “to build [a] scientific knowledge base and trust, [there is a] need for coordinated collection and sharing of data to characterize background predevelopment conditions, operations, human and ecological exposures and effects, and economic and social impacts on nearby communities.”

The second workshop, Small said, included discussions of the existing capacity to meet governance challenges, shale gas governance in other federal systems, and the potential roles of non governmental entities in fracking governance.

After Small, the webinar included talks from Andy Shea, industrial sector director of the Resources Business Group, and Sunil Kommineni, national practice leader in water treatment at water and infrastructure consulting and management company ARCADIS.

The event was sponsored by United Rentals.