Minimizing the water and air impacts of unconventional energy extraction

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 2:55 PM
Robert B Jackson, Stanford University, School of Earth Sciences, Stanford, CA, United States
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 slow the adoption of renewables and, done poorly, release toxic chemicals into water and air. 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. 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; and 5) the consequences of greenhouse gases and air pollution on ecosystems and human health.