Event Recap – Fractured: A Public Discussion on Fracking and the Environment

“Fractured: A Public Discussion on Fracking and the Environment” featured four specialists, albeit from different fields, who shared their experiences and perspectives on hydraulic fracturing. The panel discussion occurred at the Field Museum on October 12 and included the following distinguished members:

- Terry Evans, photographer of “Fractured: North Dakota’s Oil Boom”

- Margaret MacDonell, Argonne National Laboratory

- Rob Jackson, Duke University

- Alaka Wali, Field Museum

- Mike Ziri, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency

- Mark Lycett, Director of the Program on the Global Environment and Interim Director of the Center for International Studies, moderated the panel.

The event began with each of the panelists delivering a brief individual presentation.  Afterwards, there was a collective Q&A session. During the presentations, the specialists provided information on hydrofracking and its environmental and social impacts. By looking at the same problem from different perspectives, the panelists gave attendees an overview of the main concerns and opportunity areas of shale gas extraction.

Through a series of photographs and anecdotes, Terry Evans described the human experience of North Dakota’s current oil boom. Focused mainly on the social cost of hydrofracking, Evans told stories of how long-time residents of the area have had their lives changed as the result of the oil boom. As she mentioned, ‘boom’ is exactly the right word to describe the influx of job-seeking individuals to North Dakota. Evans underlined that the past practices in the area had brought serious changes in the landscape.

Margaret MacDonell provided a technical overview of fracking and its issues related to air quality and health. She emphasized the recent, rapid expansion in shale gas production and provided projections indicating that natural gas and renewables are on the rise. According to Dr. MacDonell, one of the main concerns in hydraulic fracturing is water consumption and usage. She used a diagram of the water cycle to highlight some of the issues concerning water quality such as spills and leaks, contaminants and water treatment. Dr. MacDonell also addressed some ecological impacts and, specifically the negative impact of sand mining on human health. She mentioned that shale gas has enormous potential to help meet greenhouse gas targets, reduce energy dependence and maintain low energy costs. However, there are still several opportunities to improve this process including data collection methods, use of green chemicals, implementation of sustainable practices (footprint reduction, leak detection, less water use, waste management) and guidelines to standardize the process.

Rob Jackson started his talk listing some public concerns about hydraulic fracturing, such as its effects on air quality and drinking water, its seismic effects, and the problem posed by produced water disposal. He also shared results of his previous work: “Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction.” As he reported, this research found that there was no evidence of increased concentrations of salts, metals or radioactivity in drinking water wells proximate to shale gas extraction sites. However, the overall finding suggests that some homeowners living within 1 km from gas wells have drinking water contaminated with stray gases. Concentrations of methane, ethane and propane were detected in his study. He also mentioned that there have been some positive initiatives promoted by the industry to counter the negative effects of fracking, such as reuse of water and disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process.

Alaka Wali addressed the social consequences of large-scale development for hydraulic fracturing. She highlighted the need to study how energy affects the social lives of communities and in particular how communities experience a deep sense of loss as they watch their landscapes change. She emphasized thinking beyond technology and considering the social infrastructure that governs energy development and use.

Mike Ziri spoke about Public Act 98-22, the Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act. In an attempt to be proactive, the State of Illinois introduced new regulations to protect the environment from the negative impacts of fracking practices. While fracking first appeared in Illinois during the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were not previous regulations in the state. The process of crafting this piece of legislation involved a comprehensive analysis of what had been done in other states and a broad range of partners from government, industry, and some environmental groups. The regulatory act presents a permitting process that emphasizes opportunities for public participation and community response.

In general, there are many environmental and social concerns about fracking practices. Even when communities and authorities take action to regulate this process and protect the environment and public health, there is still a substantial amount of research necessary to identify key areas of environmental and human health risk.

This event was part of the 2013-2014 year-long program titled, Global Energies: A Public Inquiry into the Ecology, Science and Politics of Energy in the 21st Century organized by the Center for International Studies. In the autumn, the featured issue is fracking and its effects on the environment and energy markets; in winter quarter, the focus will turn to biofuels; and spring will offer viewpoints on alternative energy and a world beyond fossil fuels.

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