Engineers push for collaboration on shale gas research

Shale gas wells are becoming increasingly common, especially in Pennsylvania. (credit: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Shale gas wells are becoming increasingly common, especially in Pennsylvania. (credit: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The energy climate of the nation, and especially southwest Pennsylvania, was been transformed by the discovery of the Marcellus Shale. The fracking boom has been a source of controversy, and has brought up many important questions regarding the economy, the environment, and policy. Recently, researchers from Carnegie Mellon have traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak with policymakers and share their recently completed 30-page policy guide on shale gas.

The team that traveled to Washington included engineering and public policy professor of the work and assistant director of policy outreach for the Scott Institute Deborah Stine, civil and environmental engineering professor Jeanne VanBriesen, associate professor of engineering and public policy and professor in the Tepper School of Business Michael Griffin, head of the mechanical engineering department Allen Robinson, and Ph.D. student in engineering and public policy Austin Mitchell. All are also associated with Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, which was launched last September.

The team’s main goal in Washington was to give policymakers and members of government a primer on shale gas, and inform them of the current research that was occurring at Carnegie Mellon in regards to water resources, air pollution, and gas wells. The group also focused their attention on pushing for a research initiative between universities, government, and industry.

The researchers stressed that there are many problems on how research is currently done in shale gas. According to Stine, many academic institutions are working on a “shoe- string budget,” with very little funds available when it comes to shale gas research. Mitchell also notes that research conducted by the gas industry can sometimes draw skepticism.

“There’s always that question of ‘well, is the work biased?’ and even if the work is good, it’s tough to avoid those sorts of questions. If somebody from the environmental group pays for the work, then you have the opposite occurring,” he said.

Enter the university-government-industry research initiative. The team believes that this collaboration between the different parties will result in better energy research with better solutions. Stine believes this setup would allow an independent board to prioritize research funds, and reduce the redundancy that is currently occurring in shale gas research. Mitchell also stresses the need for communication across institutions.

“What we’ve experienced is all these different people need to come together to support this initiative and to support research and understand what basically is going to be a huge part of the energy landscape of what’s to come,” he said. “That is something that we collectively believe is necessary to set a new agenda for conducting research in this area. I think it can allow us to maximize the benefits of shale gas but also understand and minimize the costs.”

In Washington, the group members met with representatives from the Obama administration, members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discuss their policy guide and give their pitch for the research initiative.

According to Mitchell and Stine, the trip seemed to be a success. “I think it was very successful. We got very little negative feedback,” Stine said.
According to Mitchell, everyone they met was informed and receptive to their ideas. “I think we did a really great job communicating our research and community the need for this initiative,” he said.

There were, however, questions of concern regarding how this initiative would be implemented, who would pay for it, and what specific processes would need to take place. According to Mitchell, currently all of the budget allotted for shale gas research goes to government organizations such as the EPA and the Department of Energy.

To Stine and Mitchell, this trip to Washington was just the beginning. Moving forward, the Scott Institute will continue to publish about three to four of these policy guides a year, according to Stine. In May, a similar group within the institute will travel to Washington, D.C. to brief policymakers on renewable energy resources. With shale gas estimated to account for almost half of the natural gas supply in the United States by 2040, the researchers in the Scott Institute hope to impact policy as soon as possible.