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Marcellus Shale as we see it

June 4, 2010

As many people in the Ithaca, NY area have become aware, the Paleontological Research Institution has received funding to provide outreach on the Marcellus Shale. This blog is one way in which we will provide a small part of our outreach. This is how we see it.

Right Whale #2030

Popular museum feature, the skeleton of Right Whale #2030

Potential drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale has provided PRI scientists and educators with a unique opportunity to provide outreach on a scientific issue of great interest and concern to the general public while many aspects of the research are in the process of being carried out. In this context we hope to provide a window on the nature of science itself. The Marcellus Shale is a “tight shale gas play” (more on this HERE), and shares many similarities with other tight shale gas plays that have been or are currently being developed. But because each tight shale gas basin was deposited in a unique geological environment hundreds of millions of years ago, there are also many differences among them. Furthermore, the modern environments above these basins also vary, so impacts of drilling can also vary. And some overarching issues, such as life cycle assessments, are still under analysis. Research that is now occurring on various aspects of the Marcellus Shale will take months to many years to complete.

It is important to make decisions based on the most up-to-date information, but it is just as important to recognize that interpretations of that information are inherently tentative and thus all conclusions have some degree of uncertainty associated with them. Science is not just a series of data points that unanimously indicate a right or wrong answer. Science involves constant collection and analysis of data points, some of which may point in one direction and others in another. Many times, the addition of new data can change the outcome of the analysis. Mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare’ once said “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” Because some of the scientific research specifically focused on the current issues surrounding Marcellus Shale gas drilling is just commencing, PRI geoscience educators have an excellent opportunity to provide outreach not just on the scientific facts associated with the Marcellus Shale gas drilling, but also on the process of how researchers throughout the region are coming to understand the actual science of the Marcellus Shale.

Providing this type of outreach is critical to how our community and our region make sound decisions, and it’s not easy. PRI staff are both fortunate and challenged by the opportunity to provide outreach on the issue of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale because we have an extremely engaged audience. We are fortunate because few opportunities arise in which so many people from different walks of life are actively seeking out information on the geology and science of their region. We are challenged because we must walk a fine line of providing scientific information in a way that is not perceived as biased in presentation, while being scrutinized by the many people in our audience who have very strong opinions pro or con with respect to natural gas drilling. Read about our approach to Marcellus shale outreach HERE.

One approach we’re taking to implement outreach both on the science of the Marcellus Shale and the nature of the science behind it is in beginning this blog. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be here describing the scientific investigations, conversations, and observations PRI geoscience educators make as we create outreach materials. We hope you follow us on our scientific journey as we dissect issues related to natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

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