news.psu.edu Image: Matt Carroll
Unconventional shale development has changed the dynamics of Pennsylvania and other states in the past decade or so due to the advances in technology such as hydraulic fracturing. While this major development has created economic opportunities, it has also opened the door to environmental issues, especially regarding water quality. A group of researchers studying these very issues have been able to move these conversations forward through the Shale Network project.
The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is the catalyst for scientists from Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Dickinson College, and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI) to obtain, organize and upload water data across the state and surrounding regions. Shale Network acts as an ‘honest broker’ in collating datasets and shares how to synthesize that data into useful knowledge.
Since the initiation of the project in 2011, the researchers have published a water quality database of over a million pieces of information from 28,000 locations.
“We have all these data points that are starting to be at our fingertips, and we have computational tools to work with the data,” states Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State. “Yet, the numbers don’t mean anything unless you are working together. Not just with geologists or geochemists, but people who live in the area the data comes from. You need that collaboration to understand what the numbers mean. Local community members teach us about their landscapes and their needs.” Those community members include watershed groups, farmers, homeowners who live in the midst of the shale footprint. Collaborations between individuals and groups have created a social network that brings much diversity to the table.
“We’ve been trying to figure out how to pull people together and look at numbers to understand impacts,” that can lead to better decisions. That’s really what Shale Network is all about,” said Brantley. “We want to help everyone understand what the numbers — in this case water chemistry numbers — mean related to shale gas development.”
The water quality information collated into one public data base and dialogue fostered between researchers, concerned citizens, regulators, and industry provides the basis for an annual workshop for people to get together and learn about the latest water quality research and ways to move forward together.
“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 but with a common goal to jointly advance the understanding of this problem and rationally discuss possible ways forward,” said Radisav Vidic, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and Shale Network member.
Brantley and several co-authors published a paper, “Engaging over data on fracking and water quality”, outlining how they engaged stakeholders in such a complex issue.
More information about the Shale Network is available on the website.