Duke Forum, in context of published reports

Duke Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke Law School co-hosted a forum on hydraulic fracturing on Monday, January 9, 2012. The public event included invited experts to speak on various aspects of hydraulic fracturing to help better set a scientific basis on which just public policy should be based.

I’ve read or listened to four summaries of the event provided in numerous outlets, and find that it would be best to simply include those here and then offer my own observations.

First, the report aired on the local news, WTVD 11:

“Duke spotlights gas fracking at experts workshop”

I think this is a good, broad, straight forward review of the event and describes very succinctly a good range of the issues. The statement that North Carolina sits atop a “huge’ resource of natural gas is subjective as we really do not know the amount of hydrocarbons in the state at this point, but they follow it nicely by describing the need to access those resources safely. I also like their description of supporters of natural gas exploration stating we should access those resources quickly, but don’t explain why, while critics are urging caution until we know the full extent of the risks and how industry can minimize those risks. I commend their report for closing with recommendations to get baseline water quality assessments done and to consult a lawyer before signing any mineral rights lease.

Second, the article in the News & Observer:

“Event at Duke posits risks of fracking in North Carolina”

OK, let me get the nit-picky stuff out of the way: if you’re going to quote a speaker, get their name right, and get where they work right as well. It’s Robert Howarth, not Hogarth. And Susan Christopherson is at Cornell, not Duke. Murawski’s tone from the start is that the purpose of this event was to spread fear of fracking, and it seems that he only interviewed the speaker from ExxonMobil who gave him a sound bite he wanted to hear: this event was biased the whole way.

Well,  he is right that this was slanted, but not in the way he implies: the event was tilted towards science. I’m looking over my notes and what I see is speaker after speaker saying that we need more data. Vengosh’s study of methane in groundwater acknowledges that it is a relatively small sample, and in fact does not show any other chemical signature of contamination from fracking activities. Howarth’s greenhouse gas emissions presentation was footnoted several times about the relative lack of data. Several speakers implied that good policy comes from thorough understanding of an issue, and thorough understanding comes from good science, and we don’t have that yet for the fracking industry: not in terms of how chemicals used in fracking effects health, how methane in drinking water affects long term health, how much methane industry releases and its effect on greenhouse gas emissions, and even how the collective psychology and emotional health of a community adapts to drastic changes in its economy.

Perhaps of greatest interest in Murawski’s article is his treatment of Christopherson’s talk on the economic impact of shale gas. She emphasized that it is a capital intensive industry that does not employ that many people, and that the worker-intensive portion of the industry – drilling the well – relies on expert crews from out of state. Her first point was that the economic projection do not take into account the costs involved, especially associated costs to upgrade roads and better connect infrastructure. She included reports of the costs placed onto local governments to maintain infrastructure (roads) were significant, yet most local governments reported no change in services or burdens. Most importantly, she indicated that comprehensive and inter-institutional (industry-government, government-to-government) planning should be done to avoid the typical bust cycle in natural resource extraction. There is strong evidence that local economies reliant on natural resources have very poor outcomes in the long run. We need to prevent that.

{Author’s note: Christopherson’s report on the economic impacts of shale gas being less than touted is echoed in a report published by the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center.}

Third: A piece in the Independent describing the event:

“Fracking and the menace of methane”

Lisa Sorg does a great job of summarizing the presentation and the ‘take home’ messages of them. Except, what comes around, goes around: Kelvin Gregory is an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon, not Cornell. She’s the first of these three articles to mention that water supply is a potential concern, which is why Dr. Gregory’s talk on frack water recycle potential in the water management realm is so pertinent. He added that they just don’t know the limits of water quality that fracking operators can use to know how effective widespread water recycling is. Furthermore, there is enough variability in the geology that what works in one fracking site may not work on another, even in the same county, let alone different basins. Sorg hoped that the legislature heard the repeated message of caution at the event, but I think that’s too hopeful. Instead, I hope those who read the N&O also read the Independent to get a fuller picture of the issue.

So, the final published summary of the event that I’ve read is somewhat from the horse’s mouth, and it happens to be the best: from the Green Gok, Dr. Bill Chameides, Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment:

“Minds meet on shale gas, fracking”

It stands to reason that this is the best synopsis of the event, but I actually feel that he captured what was presented by individuals in the overarching message of the event: if fracking is going to be done in our backyards as part of a national energy supply policy, it must be done right, and the disconnect that exists between industry and academia and public policy makers must end. All parties must work together and be transparent if this is going to work, and right now, it’s really only working for industry.

One presentation during the event that was not mentioned in any of these published summaries was Hannah Wiseman’s presentation on regulations. She quickly described the federal statutes such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act and the roles they play in guiding regulations for the shale gas industry. She then described the extreme variability of regulations from state to state and the different emphasis the states have regarding the industry. Such variability in regulations present a huge challenge in establishing a comprehensive, nation-wide set of regulations, not to mention a challenge to states looking to establish regulations for the industry.


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One thought on “Duke Forum, in context of published reports

  1. Pingback: 20 recommended regulatory improvements – and more. | NC Triassic Basins water & shale gas

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