Scientists discuss federal role in hydraulic fracturing research

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst

  The issue of hydraulic fracturing, a fairly new energy production method, has spurred intense debate, in part due unfamiliarity with the overall process. Recently on Capitol Hill, a group of federal scientists discussed their research in an attempt to inform the ongoing policy debate by Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

On June 9, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) sponsored a briefing entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: the State of Science.” During the briefing, federal scientists highlighted recent research  findings on  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and also touched on  potential ecological impacts of the process. The speakers noted that while information to date suggests that the overall process is safe with proper monitoring efforts, additional research is needed to quantify its long-term effects. Speakers noted that groundwater contamination from imperfect cementing, existing wells, cracks in rock and levels of seismic activity are all variables that present some potential environmental risk factors of fracking.

Brenda Pierce, Coordinator for the Energy Resources Program at USGS, discussed the program’s lead role in assessing energy resources for the onshore United States.  She  noted that assessments of recoverable energy resources change over time due to technological advancements and improved geologic understanding, among other factors.

Rick Hammack, Natural Systems Monitoring Coordinator for the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory discussed the multifaceted role his agency and others, including the USGS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, play in monitoring the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Hammack stressed that the overall process takes five years, including one year of scientific study before fracking begins, several years of monitoring and assessment during energy production and a period of assessment after production is completed. Consequently, Hammack noted, it may be some time before we have a full picture of the environmental impacts from fracking and continued investment in research is important.

Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Hazards at USGS, touched on the research USGS, other federal agencies and universities are conducting to better understand human-induced seismic activity from oil and gas production. Noting that mid-continent earthquakes have increased significantly in recent years, Leith clarified that the risk is manageable and that the fracking process itself has not triggered an earthquake large enough to raise safety concerns. Leith’s presentation, however, noted that the subsequent wastewater injection, which transmits wastewater from fracking into deep disposal wells, can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage, though only a small fraction have caused earthquakes large enough to be of public concern. Leith believes that further research is necessary to definitively confirm or refute the relationship between major earthquakes and wastewater injection as well as how to minimize the potential for such earthquakes.

For additional information on the briefing, including power point presentations from the speakers, click here.

Photo credit: USGS

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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