The ecology of natural gas

Nadine Lymn

Scientists examine process chain of natural gas, from rural extraction to urban distribution.

“Fracking” stories about shale gas extraction hit the news daily, fueling a growing conflagration between environmental protectionism and economic interests. Otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking has become a profitable venture thanks to advances in horizontal drilling technology, opening up large US reservoirs and vastly changing the natural gas market. Touted as a clean energy source and a bridge fuel to transition from fossil fuels, natural gas via fracking is also frought with public health and environmental concerns. A session at the upcoming annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America will look at the natural gas process chain, from extraction and processing to transport and distribution.

In the United States, most shale gas resources lie in the Northeast, South Central and Rocky Mountain regions of the country. Among the largest of these is the Marcellus shale, which underlies a broad swath of the Northeast. Robert Jackson and his colleagues at Duke University have been researching fracking impacts on drinking water, sampling the shallow groundwater systems of more than 200 homeowners, most of them in the Marcellus formation of Pennsylvania and New York. Jackson will be among the presenters discussing the ecological and environmental dimensions of shale gas extraction in the session “Natural Gas: Ecology, Environment and Economics.”

“In our first study of 68 homes published in 2011,” says Jackson, “we found no evidence of increased salt concentrations or fracturing fluids. But we did find that dissolved methane concentrations were on average 17 times higher for water wells located within 1 kilometer of gas wells.”

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