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How Quickly Things Move

July 12, 2010

It’s been amazing to watch the Marcellus Shale issue come to life in the region over the last 18 months or so. The questions that communities are bringing to the table have encouraged many scientists to devote time and effort to finding answers. With the exception of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I have never seen analysis of a topic among a group of scientists move at such an amazing pace and with such a desire for collaboration. Because aspects of Marcellus drilling are deeply interconnected (drilling, environment, economics, and so on), the only way to answer the questions about Marcellus issues is by using a “systems” approach. It might seem therefore like a no-brainer to simply put people of relevant expertise (geologists, medical doctors, sociologists, economists, and so on) in a room to explore the interconnections and come up with answers. It is a no-brainer, sort of – this should and occasionally does happen.

But it can be challenging to work across fields, in part because scientists from different fields are each accustomed to solving other kinds of problems that involve collecting data for other purposes.  Some of the data relevant for thinking about Marcellus issues may be available, but there are many holes.  Plus, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, science-based predictions are measured in probabilities. Under very specific conditions there’s an X percent chance that Y will occur, or there’s a Z percent likelihood that our understanding of W is correct. Uncertainty in predictions is greatly magnified when making predictions involving several fields, each of which involves its own uncertainties. So putting a bunch of scientists who specialize in different things together in a room leads first to enumerating all the things we don’t understand well enough to answer important questions, and only then does it begins to shed light on those answers. It is, inevitably, a slow process.

In some ways a community of scientists coming to conclusions about a scientific question is akin to jurors in deliberation. First, each scientist listens to available evidence…I guess that’s like the trial (though some of the jurors in this case may be like the investigators, digging up the evidence). A big difference is that in the court of science, everything is admissible (though of course jurors can decide whether any particular evidence is credible), and though certain scientists may argue a specific case, no one scientist plays the role of lawyer (or perhaps each plays the role of lawyer, trading off according to specialty). I think I like court of science better than a court of law — but there will never be any highly-rated TV dramas about it. Anyway, each scientist brings their evidence into deliberation with the other scientists, weighing the various probabilities and degrees of certainty, and even arguing about what aspects of their research are most crucial to answering the question at hand. (Perhaps this would make a good TV drama.) And even more so than real jury deliberations, getting to the point that all of the scientists understand each others’ data and can agree on most things (plus or minus a few points) takes a lot of time.

At PRI we’re reading numerous papers about each of the Earth science issues, and we’re talking to colleagues and among ourselves, trying to sort out the information. Take the issue of life cycle analysis of shale gas. This is the idea that the impact of using natural gas extracted from shale – the impact on carbon emissions, water usage, or any other variable of interest –must take everything into account, from developing the well pad and pipelines to extracting and combusting the gas. Such life cycle analyses are interesting especially in contrast with those of other energy resources – how does shale gas compare to conventional gas, various types of coal mining, wind energy, solar energy, or others? The number of life-cycle factors to consider can be mind-boggling and the data available scant; many generalizations are necessary. Sometimes the results are not immediately intuitive. For example, while it is accepted that, per unit energy, natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when combusted, full life cycle analyses of shale gas may show that other factors outweigh some of these combustion gains. We’re reading quite a few papers on the subject (including a PhD thesis – 3 or 4 years of someone’s life spent trying to answer this kind of question) and talked to colleagues actively engaged in the research. Clearly it may be years before we can make full comparisons between shale gas and other energy options. PRI geoscience educators will be doing their best to piece the story together and explain existing perspectives and data as they become available — but it may take longer than one might expect for the scientific community to come to some sort of consensus view.

A diverse group of Cornell researchers are putting together an effort to answer the complex questions surrounding Marcellus Shale drilling by using a systems perspective. This group has written an overview of their approach in a white paper (or in-house paper) titled, “Systems Approach to Energy and Sustainability Transitions: Marcellus Shale Gas.” Earth scientists, regional planners, educators, engineers, and economists, working with systems researchers, are bringing their expertise to the same table. They will not just compare information, but create models that take into account the complex interactions among the different processes they are studying. It will take time, as all good science does, but in the long run greater clarity will be brought to understanding of the impact of shale gas drilling in the Appalachian Basin.

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