Is fracking misunderstood? Only more data can tell. Fracking has been labeled as the new bad boy of energy extraction. It creates leaks, critics say, that allow tap water to be lit on fire. It causes earthquakes in the middle of Ohio. It is linked to the acceleration of global warming.It has been attributed to poor quality of air, water, and health. You name it, and it seems like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been accused of it.
In a country eager for a plentiful, cheap source of energy, however, fracking can’t just be dismissed. And nor should it be, some scientists argue. Fracking is a technique for extracting shale gas from rock that allows access to large deposits of natural gas that were previous inaccessible. This technique is also relatively inexpensive, and, if extracted safely, natural gas has fewer negative environmental impacts than coal or petroleum.
Corrie Clark, an environmental policy analyst and sustainable systems engineer for the Argonne National Laboratory, states that “the benefit of fracking and shale gas is that it is a tremendous source of natural gas. It is located close to its consumers. It doesn’t take a lot to transport it.”
Clark will share her expertise at the Mid-InfraRed Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE) Center’s Workshop on Air Quality Monitoring related to Energy Extraction on Friday, August 9, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For registration informationm visit www.mirthecenter.org or contact Joe Montemarano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clark will be the first of seven speakers at the workshop, held at the Frick Chemistry Laboratory on Washington Road, Princeton University. The other speakers are Alejandro Pena of Schlumberger, Michael Wojcik from the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Ana Michael from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Mickey Frish of Physical Sciences Inc., Leigh Bromley of Daylight Solutions, and Mark Zondlo from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Clark is working to develop solutions to energy and environmental issues by drawing on her experience in engineering, finance, and policy. “The drawbacks are occurring in locations where fracking is causing sudden transitions to the local landscape,” she says. Because the number of shale gas companies has expanded exponentially in recent years, infrastructure in the regions and communities where they are located has not been able to keep up. As a result, these communities are vulnerable to the waste products of shale gas wells, which impact water quality, truck traffic, road conditions, and air emission levels.
Clark became interested in environmental waste issues during her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Virginia. “I graduated from my chemical engineering program with exactly one lecture on waste treatment,” she says. “I became really interested in how waste is handled, and how waste can be minimized.” Having grown up in an academic environment in Gainesville, Florida — her mother as a faculty librarian, and her father as a professor of oral biology at the University of Florida — it might not be surprising that Clark was unsatisfied with just one lecture worth of information.
In fact, that one lecture was impactful enough to lead her to pursue a joint PhD in Environmental Engineering and Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. During her graduate studies Clark focused on modeling waste systems, especially the environmental impacts of energy technologies, which she has continued to research at Argonne.
Through the August 9 workshop Princeton University’s MIRTHE Center aims to “gain a better understanding of the fracking operations and life cycle related to shale gas extraction, completion and site restoration, in order to understand how mid-IR monitoring technologies may best be applied and address unmet needs as appropriate.”
Limited and unreliable data on air quality estimates around fracking sites has made it difficult for policymakers to develop regulation for shale gas extraction. To date, there has not been consistent monitoring of emission levels before, during, and after operations. Improving the monitoring will increase the information available, allowing for more informed decisions to be made regarding health and air quality.
In order to accomplish this, MIRTHE is bringing together companies, practitioners, policy makers and regulators, researchers, and other stakeholders, to determine the technologies needed to improve the current data gap. The workshop has three different sessions that include “Introduction to Fracking, the Economics, Opportunities, Policy, and Regulations”, “State of the Art and Potential for New Monitoring System Solutions”, and a panel discussion on “Needs for Policy, Technologies, and Applications”.
The workshop will primarily focus on the impacts of methane and other volatile fugitive emissions released from wells during the fracking process. Many of the emissions have been inconclusively linked to short- and long-term health issues to both humans and livestock. Furthermore, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2, causing its release into the environment to accelerate global warming. Without a full understanding of the emissions at different sites and different stages of shale gas extraction, however, both industry and regulators fail to conclusively rectify or dismiss communities’ concerns.
Lecturers will cover a wide range of new sensor and monitoring equipment. Some of the new techniques being used to expand information on fracking emission include laser sensors, quantum cascade lasers, methane sensors, and unmanned aerial vehicle- and vehicle-based sensors.This information can also allow economists and policymakers to develop regulations that better capture the true costs of shale gas, including risks to human health, livestock, and the long-term impacts through climate change.
The prognosis for fracking is not all doom and gloom, some scientists and policymakers argue. It has been shown that it is possible to practice fracking in a responsible, reducing the impacts to air quality and health. Initial experiments in other countries have shown that making the information from improved monitoring available to the public builds trust between companies and local communities. Improving these relationships allows companies to run their operations more effectively while communities can breathe a sigh of relief.
Clark will kick off the workshop by giving an overview about shale gas development, from the mechanics of shale gas to how a well is developed and fracked. She is looking forward to what comes next, however. “I’m excited to learn more about the technological developments, and hear what they are hoping to accomplish with them,” she says.