Research group targets fracking

Interdisciplinary group moves to understand effects of hydraulic fracturing

Could natural gas be the answer to U.S. energy independence? This is the question facing researchers and policy makers, and the State of New York finds itself right in the heart of the debate on fracking. The state overlies a portion of the Marcellus shale formation, which according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, could provide the U.S. with up to 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

A group of RPI researchers, spanning several departments—including Science and Technology Studies, civil engineering, environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, geology, and a number of others—have taken on the challenge of sifting through the existing research. They are also conducting some of their own research to determine the extent of the damage caused by fracking. By bringing together students from so many different backgrounds, the group aims to present an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural approach to the impacts of fracking. Professors Kim Fortun of the STS Department and Yuri Gorby of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department lead Rensselaer’s Fracking Research Group.

In order to extract this gas, buried thousands of feet below the ground in some places, industry relies on the processes of horizontal drilling and horizontal fracturing. In short, a hole is drilled down to the desired depth, then the well is curved at a ninety degree angle, and drilling continues horizontally. A pressurized cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals is then injected into the well in order to fracture the surrounding rock. These fractures allow the natural gas to flow more rapidly from the surrounding formation into the well, where it can be extracted and used for energy.

However, evidence suggests that the natural gas extraction process is far from perfect. The industry has been plagued with reports of groundwater contamination, air pollution, and a number of associated health and social issues. In states where hydraulic fracturing is legal, citizens are experiencing hardships almost too numerous to count. Problems range from undrinkable well-water to sudden, and often severe, illness. At the same time, though, industry reports continue to tout the benefits of fracking; after all, who can argue against a process that puts the U.S. one step closer to energy independence? There is no shortage of data on hydraulic fracturing, and its associated impacts, both positive and negative. The question is: Do the benefits outweigh the costs? This is what the Fracking Research Group is researching, by compiling studies and analyzing the science that has been done.

In addition to this research, however, the Fracking Research Group is also working to bring awareness to the issue. As a research institute, RPI finds itself in a position to make a difference in this natural gas game. During Earth Week, a program hosted by the STS Department during the Spring Semester, the fracking research group worked to put on a number of events for all age groups. From a panel of fracking experts to a fracking-themed Jeopardy game for middle school students, the events were all aimed at increasing general knowledge of the practice.

The group plans to continue this work into the 2013–2014 school year. Expected projects include further efforts to make the surrounding community more aware of the hazards of fracking, in hopes of giving New Yorkers the information they need—not only to understand the fracking debate, but also to play an active role in influencing the state’s policies.