Natural gas in deep shale formations, which can be developed by hydraulic fracturing and associated technologies (often collectively referred to as “fracking”) is dramatically increasing production of natural gas in the United States, where significant gas deposits exist in formations that underlie many states. Shale gas production now occurs in 16 states and has increased by a factor of 8 in 5 years.1, 2 Major deposits of shale gas exist in many other countries as well. These shale gas resources and the associated production techniques are referred to as “unconventional” because the gas is trapped in the source rock and has not migrated to a “reservoir” from which it can be extracted under its own pressure by the conventional technique of drilling directly, and usually vertically, into the reservoir. Extraction requires directional (often horizontal) drilling techniques, the use of hydraulic pressure to fracture the rock and thus create pathways for the gas to flow, or a combination of both techniques (Duggan-Haas et al., 2013). Although horizontal drilling and rock-fracturing techniques have both been in use for decades, the combination of techniques, the use of new combinations of chemicals in fracturing fluids, and the expansion of shale gas extraction in scale into high-population areas and into areas where populations and governments have limited recent experience living near and regulating the industry
1Data from the Energy Information Administration webpage, Shale Gas Production. Available: http://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/ng_prod_shalegas_s1_a.htm [April 2014].
2Much of the text in this introduction, particularly describing the purposes of the project, is taken from the proposal to the National Science Foundation for project support.
raise the possibility of novel consequences from this form of gas development and raise questions about the ability to manage any risks presented (see presentation by Kris Nygaard in this volume; also see Duggan-Haas et al., 2013).
Proponents of shale gas development point to several kinds of benefits, including job creation, lower gas prices, increased tax revenues to local governments, substitution of gas for dirtier-burning coal in power generation, and increased national “energy independence” (IHS Global Insight, 2011). Shale gas development has also brought increasing expression of concerns about risks, including risks to human health, environmental quality, nonenergy economic activities in shale regions, and quality of life in affected communities. Some of these potential risks are beginning to receive careful evaluation; others are not. Although the risks have neither been fully characterized yet nor all carefully analyzed, governments at all levels are making policy decisions, some of them hard to reverse, about shale gas development and/or how to manage the risks.
It is not clear that the governmental entities making these decisions have adequate knowledge of the benefits and risks or adequate resources, authority, and expertise to make and implement wise development and risk management choices. Many observers see risk management for shale gas in the United States as fragmented among an uncoordinated and organically evolving patchwork of governmental authorities that operate under a variety of laws, as well as through the activities of industrial organizations and civil society. Questions have been raised about the adequacy of risk governance because of special exemptions from federal environmental legislation that apply to this industry segment and because of the uneven and often declining capacity of state and local governmental authorities to evaluate and govern the risks in a time of budgetary stringency. In addition, new risk concerns are emerging as the technology spreads, and there are significant variations in how the technologies are used and in the associated risks across geological formations and in relation to many other ways places differ (population characteristics, built infrastructure, land use practices, policies, etc.).
Proceeding with development in this environment, with incomplete knowledge and possibly with inadequate governance capacity, has the potential to generate mistrust and continuing conflict, and as suggested in various presentations made at the two workshops, such outcomes have already occurred in various parts of the United States. Shale gas development might be headed toward a pattern of confrontation that could undermine goals for both energy production and environmental protection.
In this context, better understanding of the risks is important, and to an extent, this need is widely recognized. For example, the Shale Gas
Production Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board (2011) has emphasized the need for additional research related to the environmental impact of shale gas production. However, the language of that recommendation suggests that what is intended is technological research and development.3 It does not suggest the need for other lines of research, including research on economic, social, and public health risks associated with the development and implementation of the technologies, on risk decision making, or on risk governance, which in some views could offer useful insights for managing the future of shale gas. In the domain of governance research, for example, some analysts have long argued that a polycentric governance approach involving different levels of government, private actors, and organizations in the nonprofit sector can be highly effective for governance of shared risks if certain institutional design principles are followed (e.g., Ostrom, 2010). Other researchers have proposed ideal processes for risk decision making that might be applied and tested in this domain (see, e.g., National Research Council, 1996, 2008). A careful examination of available evidence on the performance of such approaches to risk governance in general and in the shale gas case might help in evaluating such proposals.
These workshops were organized using the model of risk characterization developed two decades ago by the National Research Council (1996). Thus, the risk questions to be explored in the workshops were selected in part on the basis of a special effort to elicit the concerns of a broad range of “interested and affected parties”: individuals and groups likely to have concerns in relation to shale gas development. The process is described in greater detail in Thomas Webler’s presentation at the first workshop. As expected, the elicitation process identified several risk concerns that had not previously been given close analytic attention, including risks to ecological systems, to several public health outcomes, and to the well-being of communities directly affected by shale gas development. The elicitation also identified various concerns about the adequacy of current risk governance systems. Informed in part by this elicitation, the steering committee organized the first workshop to examine a broad range of risks that development of shale gas resources might pose to a variety of socially valued activities and entities. It focused the second workshop on the risk governance context of shale gas development, seeking to identify important governance challenges and to consider the potential of the available social institutions and of emerging polycentric governance structures to meet them.
3This emphasis on technological approaches to risk is also reflected in other analyses of the prospects for shale gas (e.g., National Petroleum Council, 2011).
In designing the workshops, the steering committee’s objective was to assemble participants who as individuals could
- identify the range of concerns among interested parties regarding shale gas development and its governance.
- summarize available knowledge about important classes of risks and risk governance strategies that may be connected to shale gas development, particularly ones that had not previously received detailed attention.
- summarize knowledge about the capacity of existing risk management institutions to govern the risks of shale gas development.
- test the usefulness of risk governance concepts from several traditions in the social and decision sciences against the challenges of shale gas development.
- shed light on the broader problem of designing governance systems that can work in an era of declining capacity in government institutions.
- contribute to scientific understanding of the challenges of governing newly emerging risks and minimizing as-yet unidentified hazards.
- expose ideas from social science research to critique from practitioners and stakeholders who can bring experience and practicality to bear.
- test the model of risk characterization in the 1996 National Research Council report in a new domain.
The steering committee hoped that the workshops would engage, within a single, focused process, analysis of a range of environmental, health, economic, social, and other risks, not all of which are often examined together in relation to one problem. In addition, the committee hoped this process would help point the way to a risk-analytic approach aimed at more adequately informing public choices, suggest governance models that many participants believe hold promise for meeting the challenges of shale gas governance in the current era of stressed regulatory capacity, and direct the attention of the energy policy community to some fundamental social challenges—not just technological ones—that may need attention in considering policies and best practices for shale gas development. The committee also sought to ensure that the workshops would exemplify communication across diverse engineering, natural, and social scientific communities and between knowledge and action and would facilitate new scientific collaborations.
It is important to highlight two things this workshop activity did not attempt to do. First, it did not seek to be comprehensive in its cover-
age of all aspects of the potential risks or benefits associated with shale gas development, including the potential for emerging technologies to reduce risks. Rather, it sought to open discussion of a broad range of risk and risk governance issues, particularly highlighting some that had not previously received much careful analytical and empirical examination. Second, it did not seek to reach consensus on key risk issues, on promising approaches for risk governance, or on balancing risks and benefits. Rather, it sought to generate a number of promising ideas about these matters and to initiate discussion. The steering committee hoped that the issues raised in the workshops will be taken up in future efforts to understand and manage risks related to shale gas development, efforts that will examine the issues critically from multiple perspectives in the service of well-informed societal choices regarding shale gas resources.
The time frame for this activity is also worth noting. The two workshops described here were held in May and August 2013, a period when new studies and reports relevant to shale gas risks and their governance were appearing frequently. This report addresses only what the participants knew when they spoke. Work continues on many of the issues raised in the workshops; in fact, many of the participants have updated their contributions to the workshops in papers appearing in the August 5, 2014, Special Issue of Environmental Science & Technology (volume 48, issue 15, pp. 8287-8416) and other publications. These papers contain the authors’ own views and opinions and do not represent those of the National Research Council or the workshops as a whole.
This report has been prepared by the workshop rapporteur as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. It also includes the rapporteur’s summaries, based on the workshops, of some risk questions that may need future analysis (at the end of the summary of the first workshop) and of important challenges, opportunities, and issues that may require future research for shale gas risk management (at the end of the summary of the second workshop). The steering committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the workshop. The views contained in the report are those of individual workshop participants. The two summaries mentioned above are the rapporteur’s best effort to summarize those views. None of the views expressed represent the views of all workshop participants, the steering committee, or the National Research Council.4
4Video recordings of the presentations, comments, and discussion sessions at the workshops, as well as copies of the presenters’ slides and abstracts of their presentations, can be found at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BECS/CurrentProjects/DBASSE_069201 [July 2014].