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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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Is Nature Exclusively Left Handed? Using Chilled Atoms to Find Out

Elegant techniques of trapping and polarizing atoms open vistas for beta-decay tests of fundamental symmetries, key to understanding the most basic forces and particles constituting our universe.

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Enhanced Detection of Nuclear Events, Thanks to Deep Learning

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are exploring deep learning to interpret data related to national security, the environment, the cosmos, and breast cancer. In one project a deep neural network is interpreting data about nuclear events as well as - sometimes better than - today's best automated methods or human experts.

A Bit of Quantum Logic--What Did the Atom Say to the Quantum Dot?

Let's talk! Scientists demonstrate coherent coupling between a quantum dot and a donor atom in silicon, vital for moving information inside quantum computers.

Sodium- and Potassium-based Batteries Hold Promise for Cheap Energy Storage

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found new evidence suggesting that batteries based on sodium and potassium hold promise as a potential alternative to lithium-based batteries.

ORNL researchers use AI to improve mammogram interpretation

In an effort to reduce errors in the analyses of diagnostic images by health professionals, a team of researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory has improved understanding of the cognitive processes involved in image interpretation, work that has enormous potential to improve health outcomes for the hundreds of thousands of American women affected by breast cancer each year. The ORNL-led team found that analyses of mammograms by radiologists were significantly influenced by context bias, or the radiologist's previous diagnostic experiences.

Scientists Make the First Molecular Movie of One of Nature's Most Widely Used Light Sensors

Scientists have made the first molecular movie of the instant when light hits a sensor that's widely used in nature for probing the environment and harvesting energy from light. The sensor, a form of vitamin A known as retinal, is central to a number of important light-driven processes in people, animals, microbes and algae, including human vision and some forms of photosynthesis, and the movie shows it changing shape in a trillionth of an eye blink.

Scientists isolate protein data from the tiniest of caches - single human cells

Scientists have captured the most information yet about proteins within a single human cell, giving scientists one of their clearest looks yet at the molecular happenings inside a human cell. The team detected on average more than 650 proteins in each cell - many times more than conventional techniques capture from single cells.

Researchers Generate Electricity and Hydrogen from Live Bacteria

Using a family of photosynthetic bacteria that commonly live in lakes and seas, researchers at the Technion have developed a technology to generate electricity and hydrogen energy. The researchers believe their technology can serve as a promising source of clean, environment-friendly energy that will not emit pollutants during production or use (hydrogen fuel).


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Department of Energy Selects 84 Scientists to Receive Early Career Research Program Funding

The Department of Energy (DOE) has selected 84 scientists from across the nation - including 30 from DOE's national laboratories and 54 from U.S. universities - to receive significant funding for research as part of the DOE Office of Science's Early Career Research Program.

Three Argonne Scientists Receive DOE Early Career Awards

Three Argonne researchers have earned the DOE's 2018 Early Career Research Program awards.

Four SLAC Scientists Awarded Prestigious DOE Early Career Research Grants

Four scientists at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will receive Early Career Research Program awards for research that's developing new ways to study fundamental particles with machine learning and study nanoscale objects and quantum materials with powerful X-ray laser beams.

PPPL Physicists Aim to Unlock Mysteries of Fusion with Early Career Research Awards

Article describes PPPL winner of DOE Early Career Awards.

Ames Laboratory's Ke Earns DOE Early Career Research Award

Ames Laboratory scientist Liqin Ke is one of 30 scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) national laboratories to be selected for funding as part of the DOE's Early Career Research Program.

6 Berkeley Lab Researchers Receive DOE Early Career Research Awards

Six scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science to receive significant funding for research through its Early Career Research Program.

Stony Brook's AERTC Selected for Leadership Role in Nationwide Consortium on Offshore Wind Industry

Stony Brook's Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC) will play a key role in a nationwide research and development consortium for the offshore wind industry. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority was awarded a $18.5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to establish the National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced last week. New York State, through NYSERDA, has committed an additional $20.5 million to fund the consortium supporting Gov. Cuomo's initiative Reforming the Energy Vision (REV).

Professor Emily Liu Receives $1.8 Million DoE Award for Solar Power Systems Research

Li (Emily) Liu, associate professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) to receive a $1.8 million award to study high-temperature molten-salt properties and corrosion mechanisms.

Vasilis Fthenakis Receives IEEE's William R. Cherry Award

UPTON, NY; Vasilis Fthenakis, a Senior Scientist Emeritus at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and Founder and Director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia University, will receive the 2018 William R. Cherry Award from the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

New PPPL director Steve Cowley is honored with knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II

Steven Cowley, newly named director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) effective July 1, has received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth "for services to science and the development of nuclear fusion."


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Is Nature Exclusively Left Handed? Using Chilled Atoms to Find Out

Elegant techniques of trapping and polarizing atoms open vistas for beta-decay tests of fundamental symmetries, key to understanding the most basic forces and particles constituting our universe.

As Future Batteries, Hybrid Supercapacitors Are Super-Charged

A new supercapacitor could be a competitive alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

Forever Young Catalyst Reduces Diesel Emissions

Atom probe tomography reveals key explanations for stable performance over a cutting-edge diesel-exhaust catalyst's lifetime.

Sense Like a Shark: Saltwater-Submersible Films

A nickelate thin film senses electric field changes analogous to the electroreception sensing organ in sharks, which detects the bioelectric fields of prey.

A Bit of Quantum Logic--What Did the Atom Say to the Quantum Dot?

Let's talk! Scientists demonstrate coherent coupling between a quantum dot and a donor atom in silicon, vital for moving information inside quantum computers.

New Tech Uses Isomeric Beams to Study How and Where the Galaxy Makes One of Its Most Common Elements

A new measurement using a beam of aluminum-26 prepared in a metastable state allows researchers to better understand the creation of the elements in our galaxy.

Simulations of Magnetically Confined Plasmas Reveal a Self-Regulating Stabilizing Mechanism

A mysterious mechanism that prevents instabilities may be similar to the process that maintains the Earth's magnetic field.

Seeing All the Colors of the Plasma Wind

2-D velocity imaging helps fusion researchers understand the role of ion winds (aka flows) in the boundary of tokamak plasmas.

Renewable Solvents Derived From Lignin Lowers Waste in Biofuel Production

New class of solvents breaks down plant biomass into sugars for biofuels and bioproducts in a closed-loop biorefinery concept.

Scientists Studying Nuclear Spin Make a Surprising Discovery

The size of a nucleus appears to influence the direction of certain particles emitted from collisions with spinning protons.


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