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Energy Seminar: Rob Jackson, The Environmental Footprint of Unconventional Natural Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

Unconventional oil and natural gas extraction fueled by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is driving an economic boom, with consequences described as “revolutionary” to “disastrous”.  Reality lies somewhere in between. Unconventional energy generates income and, done well, can reduce air pollution compared to other fossil fuels and even water use compared to fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Alternatively, it could  release toxic chemicals into water and air and slow the adoption of renewables. Based on research to date, some primary threats to water resources come from surface spills, wastewater disposal, and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity.  For air resources, an increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally is a potential health threat, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and particulate pollution regionally.  Data gaps are particularly evident for human health studies, the extent to which natural gas will displace coal compared with renewables, and the decadal-scale legacy issues of well integrity, leakage, and plugging and abandonment practices.  Critical needs for future research include data for 1) estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) of unconventional hydrocarbons; 2) the potential for further reductions of water requirements and chemical toxicity; 3) whether unconventional resource development alters the frequency of well-integrity failures; 4) potential contamination of surface and ground waters from drilling and spills; 5) factors that could cause wastewater injection to generate large earthquakes; and 6) the consequences of greenhouse gases and air pollution on ecosystems and human health.  
Brief Bio:
Rob Jackson is the Douglas Provostial Professor in Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, Precourt Institute for Energy, and Woods Institute for the Environment. His lab examines how people affect the earth, including studies of the global carbon and water cycles, biosphere/atmosphere interactions, energy use, and global change. While at Duke University, he and his colleagues published the first studies examining drinking water quality and shale gas extraction, as well as several studies on wastewater disposal and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMS).  He also examines hydrocarbon emissions upstream from wellpads and downstream in cities, including the first maps of natural gas leaks across urban pipelines in Boston and Washington, D.C.  In recent years Jackson directed the DOE National Institute for Climate Change Research for the southeastern U.S., co-chaired the recent U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Plan, and is now co-chair of the Global Carbon Project (



Monday, September 29, 2014. 04:15PM


NVIDIA auditorium, Huang Engineering


Precourt Institute for Energy




Free and open to all