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Using shared data to improve shale gas dialogue

Waterfall in World's End State Park, Pennsylvania. The Shale Network hosts an extensive database covering the Marcellus Shale Formation (Wikimedia Commons/Nicholas A. Tonelli).
Waterfall in World's End State Park, Pennsylvania. The Shale Network hosts an extensive database covering the Marcellus Shale Formation (Wikimedia Commons/Nicholas A. Tonelli).

By using datasets that are made using a diverse range of sources, researchers say that the debate over water quality and shale drilling can become more constructive.

The Shale Network, a group of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation, is trying to facilitate the conversation between communities, watershed groups, local government and industry by encouraging the joint collection, analysis and sharing of data. The Network acts as an “honest broker” when compiling these datasets into a publicly available database. The database currently has over a million data points from 28,000 locations across the US state of Pennsylvania.

"We are not trying to prove fracking is bad," says Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State and member of the network. "We are not trying to prove water quality is perfect. We are trying to look at what the water chemistry looks like in the areas where fracking is occurring and help all kinds of people talk about that together."

The training of students and communities affected by fracking in the collection and analysis of water quality data is also an aim for the project. The researchers said in a press release that the Shale Network aims to collect as complete a database as possible and put it in as much context as possible, which includes using geographic and economic data to improve risk evaluations. Brantley noted the importance of local knowledge about the affected areas: watershed groups in Pittsburgh, for example, know to look out for discharge from derelict coal mines when collecting data.

But the most important result of the work is not the database, but the social network of various perspectives and concerns that building it fostered. Such a network can more easily discuss complex issues like shale drilling, according to the researchers.

"I don't believe that anyone else was able to bring such a diverse group of people together to discuss this extremely complex problem from their unique perspectives, with a common goal to jointly advance the understanding of this problem and rationally discuss possible ways forward," says Radisav Vidic, the William Kepler Whiteford Professor and Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and Shale Network member.

"We may have developed a blueprint for how to engage different stakeholders and develop a commonality of purpose even in something as controversial and complicated as unconventional gas extraction… Perhaps this blueprint can be applied for the same problem [shale drilling] elsewhere in the world or for other complex problems."

A paper on this subject was published by the group 26 January in the journal Science, called ‘Engaging over data on fracking and water quality’.

Waterfall in World's End State Park, Pennsylvania. The Shale Network hosts an extensive database covering the Marcellus Shale Formation (Wikimedia Commons/Nicholas A. Tonelli).