Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works. Carl Sagan
At the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Susan Brantley of Penn State University stood before the audience and stated a dilemma that has attracted a flood of media attention in recent years: new discoveries of shale gas reserves in the United States offer the promise of enormous economic gains, but they may come at a high environmental cost. As a hydrologist, Brantley knows that making informed decisions about how to tackle this complex issue requires data, and lots of it. Thats why she helped establish the Shale Network to investigate the effects of natural gas extraction in her home state of Pennsylvania, ground zero for the gas debate.
Youve probably heard of Appalachias newest geological darling, the Marcellus Shale. The natural gas entombed in its ancient folds could quench US energy demands for decades to come. But this boon comes with a hefty price tag: extracting the gas requires an invasive method of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. It consumes large quantities of freshwater for mixing up solutions of sand and chemicals that engineers drive deep into the Earth to pry open the impermeable layers that contain natural gas. Concerns about fracking revolve around the depletion of freshwater resources and more importantly, the fate of that fracking fluid once the work is done. Reports of tainted well water and worsening health risks near fracking sites have raised alarm bells that perhaps the costs outweigh the benefits.
Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, who reside atop the richest portions of the Marcellus Formation, they know all too well the double-edged sword of living next to valuable energy resources. The states rolling hills and valleys also house the massive Allegheny coal deposits that fueled the modernization of the 20th century. Pennsylvania coal powered our trains, heated our homes, and smelted the steely skeletons of our skyscrapers. Both formations exist because, 400 million years ago, ancient plants and animals flourished there before primordial heat cooked them into coal and gas and tectonic forces heaved them to the surface for humans to discover.
So while Pennsylvania (along with Ohio, West Virginia, and New York) can claim to have powered over a century of American industry, they have also born the consequences. Coal mining has left behind a legacy of beheaded mountains and polluted streams. Mineworkers suffer from lung diseases and continue to work under the terrifying threat of collapsing mines and underground explosions. In one extreme example, a subterranean fire started at the Centralia mine has burned continuously since 1962, forcing residents to abandon their smoldering town.
Fracking comes with a slightly different suite of damaging side effects. Critics protest that it causes air pollution and contaminates aquifers and surface water with hazardous compounds injected with the drilling fluid, or that occur naturally in the bedrock and become mobilized. These include heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium as well as radioactive elements like radon and organic carcinogens such as benzene. Stories of severe health problems have surfaced here and there, but without comprehensive data coverage, the true scope and nature of the problem remains fuzzy. Fearing the worst, many cities and counties (as well as the whole country of France) have made headlines by banning fracking within their borders.
This leads to a sticky situation: fracking provides the key to unlocking vast domestic energy reserves (which burn cleaner, incidentally, than oil or coal) but it may also contaminate the environment for residents who live above shale gas deposits and everyone downstream.
Enter the Shale Network, a consortium of scientists and government agencies funded by the National Science Foundation to monitor water quantity and quality across the wide sweep of the Marcellus shale and the multitude of unconventional (fracking) wells that have popped up in the last 5 years. After all, the dispute boils down to a series of objective questions: does fracking contaminate ground and surface water? If so, what kinds of chemicals are leaked and in what concentrations? As Susan Brantley introduced it at AGU, the newly formed Network will act as an honest broker of this informationcollecting, collating, and distributing water quality data across the shale gas region to scientists and citizens to help address important issues of health and safety.
But thats a big task. The increase in fracking activity has been nothing if not swift. Although virtually no fracking occurred in Pennsylvania prior to 2007, the number of wells peaked at nearly 2,000 in early 2011. Scientists can hardly keep up. Thats where the second part of the Shale Network comes in: enlisting citizen scientists. Collaborators at Dickinson College have spearheaded the Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring (ALLARM) to train volunteers to collect high-quality data to contribute to the Networks database. This puts more feet on the ground, and increases data coverage of small waterways so that scientists can catch early signs of water quality changes.
Many non-profit groups and conservation associations, such as the proudly named Gods Country Trout Unlimited and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), have leapt at the chance, submitting data sets on their precious backyard waterways to the project. The SRBC submitted one study of a 23-mile-long tributary named Larrys Creek, just the type of place scientists would have a hard time reaching but that doubtless holds a treasure trove of favorite fishing spots and swimming holes.
As the Shale Network enters its second year, scientists can start to assess the trends. For now, its still too early to tell, but its very existence assures that we will understand the consequences of natural gas extraction far earlier in the process than we did with coal. The Network also provides an example of the role science can play in highly-charged controversies: to look at the facts and provide answers to stakeholders so that informed citizens and politicians can make wise decisions. And by empowering citizen scientists to help address these questions themselves, the Shale Network helps bring the debate back to what its really all about: science.
What do you think? How can science help address controversial issues like fracking?
To learn more about fossil fuels and climate change, check out our module on The Carbon Cycle.
Explore the process of fracking.
Written by Julia Rosen
Julia Rosen is a freelance science writer and PhD student at Oregon State University. She received a Bachelors degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University before beginning her doctoral research on polar ice cores and climate change. In between, she did her Master's in backpacking around the world and skiing. Julia is a periodic contributor to Oregon States research magazine, Terra, and helps write blog content and develop learning modules for Visionlearning.