Doe Science news source
The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2014-08-04 10:00:00
  • Article ID: 621517

Drilling in the Dark: Biological Impacts of Fracking Still Largely Unknown

As production of shale gas soars, the industry's effects on nature and wildlife remain largely unexplored, according to a study by a group of conservation biologists published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on Aug. 1.

The report emphasizes the need to determine the environmental impact of chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failure, and other accidents.

"We know very little about how shale gas production is affecting plants and wildlife," says author Sara Souther, a conservation fellow in the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "And in particular, there is a lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and the chemistry of fracturing fluids. Of the 24 U.S. states with active shale gas reservoirs, only five maintain public records of spills and accidents."

The 800 percent increase in U.S. shale gas production between 2007 and 2012 is largely due to the use of hydraulic fracturing. Also called fracking, the process uses high-pressure injection of water, laden with sand and a variety of chemicals, to open cracks in the gas reservoir so natural gas can flow to the well. A similar technique is used for extracting oil from "tight" geologic formations.

The chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances, is often unknown. The authors reviewed chemical disclosure statements for 150 wells in three top gas-producing states and found that, on average, two out of three wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical.

Pressured by growing concern about pollution to groundwater and surface water, government and the industry have made some steps toward openness, Souther acknowledges, but she says more progress is needed.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the nation's best sources of publicly available information on spills of fracking fluid, wastewater, and other contaminants. Even so, gas companies failed to report over one third of spills in the last year,” she says. “How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections? We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals.”

One of the greatest threats to animal and plant life identified in the study is the cumulative impact of rapid, widespread shale development, with each individual well contributing collectively to air, water, noise and light pollution.

“The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts,” notes Morgan Tingley, a researcher from University of Connecticut. “We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts.”

“If you look down on a heavily fracked landscape," Souther says, "you see a web of well pads, access roads, and pipelines creating islands out of what was, in some cases, continuous habitat. What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?

“I am from West Virginia, which is underlain by one of the largest shale gas reservoirs in the U.S. However, this industry doesn’t just impact gas-producing states. Here in Wisconsin, shale development is affecting areas that supply sand for use in hydraulic fracturing."

The study looked broadly at what is known — and what is not — about the conservation impacts of fracking. “Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” says co-author Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”

With shale gas production projected to increase exponentially over the next 30 years, the authors hope the study will guide the application of limited scientific resources to the most important questions, and enhance cooperation among scientists, industry and policymakers to minimize damage to the natural world.

The authors are all David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellows, a project established by the Cedar Tree Foundation and the Society for Conservation Biology. Souther has been a research fellow at UW-Madison for three years. In September, she will begin a professorship at West Virginia Wesleyan College in West Virginia.

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DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

A Shortcut to Modeling Sickle Cell Disease

Using Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan supercomputer, a team led by Brown University's George Karniadakis devised a multiscale model of sickle cell disease that captures what happens inside a red blood cell affected by the disease.

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A new study led by Kathryn Caldwell, an assistant professor of psychology at Ithaca College, demonstrates that homeowners can be encouraged to make changes to their energy use with a simple education plan and some helpful tricks from the world of social psychology.

X-Rays Reveal 'Handedness' in Swirling Electric Vortices

Scientists used spiraling X-rays at Berkeley Lab to observe, for the first time, a property that gives left- or right-handedness to swirling electric patterns - dubbed polar vortices - in a layered material called a superlattice.

Breaking Bad Metals with Neutrons

By combining the latest developments in neutron scattering and theory, researchers are close to predicting phenomena like superconductivity and magnetism in strongly correlated electron systems. It is likely that the next advances in superconductivity and magnetism will come from such systems, but they might also be used in completely new ways such as quantum computing.

ORNL Researchers Use Titan to Accelerate Design, Training of Deep Learning Networks

For deep learning to be effective, existing neural networks to be modified, or novel networks designed and then "trained" so that they know precisely what to look for and can produce valid results. This is a time-consuming and difficult task, but one that a team of ORNL researchers recently demonstrated can be dramatically expedited with a capable computing system.

Dark Energy Survey Publicly Releases First Three Years of Data

At a special session held during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., scientists on the Dark Energy Survey (DES) announced today the public release of their first three years of data. This first major release of data from the Survey includes information on about 400 million astronomical objects, including distant galaxies billions of light-years away as well as stars in our own galaxy.

Ingredients for Life Revealed in Meteorites That Fell to Earth

A detailed study of blue salt crystals found in two meteorites that crashed to Earth - which included X-ray experiments at Berkeley Lab - found that they contain both liquid water and a mix of complex organic compounds including hydrocarbons and amino acids.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.


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Kelsey Stoerzinger Earns Young Investigator Lectureship

Kelsey Stoerzinger, Pauling Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is one of the 2018 Caltech Young Investigator Lecturers in Engineering and Applied Physics.

North Dakota State University Joins Two National Distributed Computing Groups

The NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) joins OSG (Open Science Grid) and XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment).

DOE Announces Funding for New HPC4Manufacturing Industry Projects

The Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) today announced the funding of $1.87 million for seven new industry projects under an ongoing initiative designed to utilize DOE's high-performance computing (HPC) resources and expertise to advance U.S. manufacturing and clean energy technologies.

DOE Announces First Awardees for New HPC4Materials for Severe Environments Program

The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (FE) today announced the funding of $450,000 for the first two private-public partnerships under a brand-new initiative aimed at discovering, designing and scaling up production of novel materials for severe environments.

Two Argonne Scientists Recognized for a Decade of Breakthroughs

Two scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been named to the Web of Science's Highly Cited List of 2017, ranking in the top 1 percent of their peers by citations and subject area. Materials Scientist Khalil Amine and Energy and Environmental Policy Scientist David Streets say they are thrilled to see their work -- and the laboratory -- recognized in such a way.

Argonne Welcomes Department of Energy Secretary Perry

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne National Laboratory yesterday, getting a first-hand view of the multifaceted and interdisciplinary research program laboratory of the Department.

Argonne names John Quintana Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and COO

John Quintana has been named Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Developing Next-Generation Sensing Technologies

Recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $20 million in funding for 15 projects that will develop a new class of sensor systems to enable significant energy savings via reduced demand for heating and cooling in residential and commercial buildings.

Supporting the Development of Offshore Wind Power Plants

Offshore wind is becoming a reality in the United States, especially in the northeast states. To support this development, the Center for Future Energy System (CFES) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will present a webinar titled "Turbine and Transmission System Technologies for Offshore Wind (OSW) Power Plants." The program will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 20, from 2 to 4 p.m. Advance registration is required.

LLNL Releases Newly Declassified Nuclear Test Videos

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) released 62 newly declassified videos today of atmospheric nuclear tests films that have never before been seen by the public.


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Arctic Photosynthetic Capacity and Carbon Dioxide Assimilation Underestimated by Terrestrial Biosphere Models

New measurements offer data vital to projecting plant response to environmental changes.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

Superconducting Tokamaks Are Standing Tall

Plasma physicists significantly improve the vertical stability of a Korean fusion device.

Graphene Flexes Its Muscle

Crumpling reduces rigidity in an otherwise stiff material, making it less prone to catastrophic failure.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

What's the Noise Eating Quantum Bits?

The magnetic noise caused by adsorbed oxygen molecules is "eating at" the phase stability of quantum bits, mitigating the noise is vital for future quantum computers.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.

Filtering Water Better than Nature

Water passes through human-made straws faster than the "gold standard" protein, allowing us to filter seawater.

Machine Learning Provides a Bridge to the Texture of the Quantum World

Machine learning and neural networks are the foundation of artificial intelligence and image recognition, but now they offer a bridge to see and recognize exotic insulating phases in quantum materials.

A Rare Quantum State Realized in a New Material

A revolutionary material harbors magnetism and massless electrons that travel near the speed of light--for future ultrasensitive, high-efficiency electronics and sensors.


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