Energy & Environment

When it comes to shale and the environment, a focus on infrastructure, not just fracking

Getty Images

When thinking about the potential impact of shale gas development on the environment, news often focuses on the hydraulic fracturing process itself that occurs underground, but the accompanying infrastructure needed at the surface to drill wells and extract, process, and transport the gas does not receive as much media attention. This infrastructure includes well pads, access roads and pipelines that move the shale gas from wells either to processing facilities and eventually our homes for heating, cooking and other uses, or to the manufacturing sector for liquid natural gas products.

{mosads}This map from the Energy Information Administration highlights some proposed additions to the interstate pipeline network in the Appalachian basin. What it does not show are the land and water impacts associated with development at the well head or the pipelines that take the gas from wells to these interstate pipelines. One way to think about the system is that, while the map shows the veins, it does not show the capillaries leading to those veins.

In spring 2015, the Nature Conservancy and Carnegie Mellon University, with funding from the Colcom Foundation of Pittsburgh, convened a collaborative workshop to address the environmental challenges associated with shale gas development. More than 140 participants represented a diverse cross-section of energy and environment experts from academic institutions; local, state and federal government agencies; nongovernmental organizations and foundations; and members of the energy industry. The resulting report, “Advancing the Next Generation of Environmental Practices for Shale Development,” developed a number of conclusions and recommendations that policymakers may find useful in thinking about this critical issue.

A comprehensive, landscape-scale planning process that incorporates regulatory predictability can address some of the impacts of shale infrastructure on wildlife habitats, water resources, and ecosystem functions while improving operational efficiencies (including potential cost savings).

Although this may seem commonsense, it is not easy to implement in the Appalachian region. Fragmented surface and subsurface ownership, coordination among operators (raising antitrust concerns), strong personal property rights and significant gaps in available data make landscape-scale planning more challenging than one might expect. In addition, it is important to understand that no matter where the infrastructure is sited, some natural resources will be impacted, and design and operational practices are necessary to minimize these impacts.

What can policymakers do about it? They can standardize regulations and requirements for activities associated with shale development that currently are different at each level of government, from local to county to state to federal. In addition, no single coordinating agency keeps track of development or impacts on the regional or watershed scale. If policymakers could develop a collaborative framework that would establish voluntary “leading” practices related to landscape-scale planning, incentives to encourage those practices and a third-party certification program to increase confidence in the practices, some impacts of shale gas siting and operations on ecosystems could be reduced, all while potentially realizing financial savings for companies.

As part of a landscape-scale planning process, placing linear infrastructure, including pipelines, in the footprint of existing corridors, such as other pipelines, electric power lines or roads — instead of undeveloped areas — can potentially reduce adverse environmental impacts and potentially lower overall construction and maintenance costs. The challenges to co-location of infrastructure are legal and safety concerns, competition among operators, landowner preferences, lack of coordination among different levels of government, and regulatory variation for one type of infrastructure versus another.

How can policymakers help? Policymakers can ask that agencies with different jurisdictions work together, in conjunction with stakeholders, to establish a multi-well approval process for drilling sites to facilitate co-locating infrastructure; develop, improve and expand upon existing best management practices; and educate landowners and other stakeholders about the benefits of co-location. Another option is for policymakers to establish pipeline transportation corridors that are part of a flexible, smart planning infrastructure as opposed to reviewing each activity on a case-by-case basis.

To facilitate these actions, we need better education of stakeholders so they understand the current scientific research, practices and regulations. Industry also needs a single, comprehensive, regionally specific, best practices manual. We need to support more research and data collection to better understand which practices on the ground are actually “best.”

Overall, we need continued engagement of government at all levels; industry; academia; nongovernmental organizations; landholders; and all stakeholders. During the workshop, we found that many groups did not fully understand the concerns or situations each faced. More dialogue, encouraged and supported by policymakers, can help facilitate shale gas management practices that are beneficial for communities, ecosystems, and energy development.

Stine is associate director for policy outreach at the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and professor of the Practice, Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Cohon is president emeritus, director of the Scott Institute, and University Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering & Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon. Cohon co-chaired the event on which this piece is based.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


Most Popular

Load more


See all Video