I’m checking in from the 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver; an annual treat I look forward to. I love the opportunity to spend time with so many old friends gathered in one city. The only part I don’t like is that there are so many fascinating talks happening at once, it’s not possible to be at all of them. But then, that’s a pleasant predicament to be in.
So far, I’ve really enjoy the energy symposiums and learned a good deal in a panel that took place on Friday entitled: “Hydraulic Fracturing of Shale: Building Consensus Out of Controversy.” The event came the day after its organizers released a new report saying that there’s no direct link between groundwater contamination and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” For those unfamiliar with the topic, this is a method of extracting natural gas and oil from shale formations.
As one of the presenters explained: Fracking is a case where the science lags behind the technology. In other words, we developed the means to do it before we had the chance to study the short- and long-term impacts. And I’ll add, the public lags even further behind the science. So we’re left with a highly controversial topic that few Americans understand.
The extraordinarily rapid acceleration of shale gas development, made possible by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, has transformed the outlook for North American energy production. Indeed, recent estimates indicate natural gas extraction from shale gas development could meet provide a relatively clean and affordable source for the continent’s energy needs for the next 100 years or more. Enthusiasm for shale gas as a game-changing resource is tempered, however, by fears that hydraulic fracturing could contaminate groundwater, worsen air quality, and even trigger seismic activity. In response, some U.S. states and Canadian provinces have imposed moratoriums on shale development until more is known about hydraulic fracturing and its effects on the environment. The three-hour symposium will be moderated by Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin and former Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy. Four participants, representing distinguished universities in Canada and the U.S., will discuss findings from a new study analyzing reports of groundwater contamination and other environmental effects ascribed to the practice; assess concerns relating to water use and water disposal during the shale gas development; examine claims of seismic activity in northeastern British Columbia; and explore prospects for fostering consensus among policymakers for the regulation of shale gas development in a sustainable energy future.