Studying gas

CU team’s effort could settle many questions about gas development

The issues and related rhetoric around natural-gas production have been growing in number and volume in recent years, particularly as gas development has made its way to areas more densely populated than in times past. That raised profile has raised questions about the impacts – positive and negative – natural-gas development has on the regions in which it takes place, with those on various sides of the issue advancing divergent claims about those impacts.

With a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Colorado-led team intends to cut through the rhetoric and provide a comprehensive set of answers to those and other questions. They will be critical to forming sound policy going forward.

The grant will fund an interdisciplinary study that considers the social, ecological and economic impacts that gas development has on the communities and ecosystems in which it takes place. Those working on the project include social scientists, health experts, information technology specialists and air- and water-quality experts. The group will be led by Joseph Ryan, a professor in CU’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering program.

The effort is wide-ranging in its scope and its goals, which is appropriate for an increasingly prevalent and divisive issue. Ryan and his team will assess industry practices and technology for fracking, drilling and other development-related activities and generate recommendations for minimizing their negative impacts, thereby increasing their benefits to economies and communities. From there, the group will conduct significant public outreach and encourage “citizen science” to gather air-quality data and other information. This and all the findings will be shared with the public in a series of education venues and then used to inform new or revised policies regulating natural-gas development.

The project’s scope is broad, as are the issues that surround natural-gas activities and the various positions held around them. Taking such a comprehensive look is no small effort, and doing so has the potential to settle much of the discord on all sides. It will require, though, that all involved maintain the perspective that natural-gas development is not going to end any time soon and, to varying degrees, most Americans rely on the resource for some of their energy needs. Within that frame, there is ample opportunity to improve the way natural gas is gathered, though, and Ryan has that goal in sharp focus.

“We all create demand for natural gas, so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction,” Ryan said in a news release. “Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the trade-offs associated with the benefits and costs of natural-gas development.”

That is a worthy and welcome undertaking, and its outcome will be useful to individuals, industry and communities across the country.