Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

What Experts Say about the Environmental Risks of Shale Gas Development

Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

What Experts Say about the Environmental Risks of Shale Gas Development

Article excerpt

Public discourse suggests a lack of consensus in the United States regarding the environmental impacts of shale gas development. On one hand, shale gas offers great promise as a low-cost source of electricity, industrial feedstocks, residential and commercial energy, and even transportation fuel. On the other, public fears about the environmental effects of shale gas development threaten to dim or eliminate these prospects. In an effort to find a way out of this uneasy state of affairs, we identify areas of consensus among experts about the environmental risks from shale gas development in the sense of their highest priorities for further government regulatory and/or voluntary industry actions. We collect responses from 215 experts in academia, government regulatory agencies, the industry, and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) using a highly technical, structured internet survey. The survey presented 264 "impact pathways" that linked specific shale gas development activities-from site development to well abandonment-to burdens such as air pollution, noise, and ground water contamination and fourteen "accident categories," generating their qualitative assessments of the probability of such accidents occurring and how severe they might be. They were also asked whether industry or government should have the primary responsibility for acting on each priority.


We summarize the sample and survey used in the study here and provide additional detailed information online (see PathwaystoDialogue_FullReport.pdf). To elicit experts' highest priorities for impacts, we first had to determine the full set of potential pathways, which we divided into risks associated with routine, everyday operations and risks arising from accidents.

We characterized the routine impact pathways by creating a risk matrix (the complete matrix is provided in the survey, which is available in supporting materials online at The risk matrix illustrates how activities associated with widespread development of shale gas wells can create burdens that can affect intermediate points that people care about, such as ground water and soil quality, and various other effects such as traffic that disrupt local communities. It is important to note that the matrix shows all risks that could plausibly occur under normal and unusual operating conditions rather than tallying impacts that have occurred. The list of risks arising from accidents is more concise (see Figure S1, questions 29-42 in the supplemental materials).

For each risk, survey respondents were given a binary choice: Is this risk a high priority for you? Hence, when we identify a pathway as a top priority for a group, we simply mean that it was a top vote-getter among respondents in that group. Each participant selected high-priority routine activities by clicking on an interactive version of the matrix. Then, two subsequent questions collected additional information about a randomly selected subset of the respondent's high-priority pathways: (i) Is there enough information about the pathway to support regulatory and/or voluntary action or is further research needed? (ii) Does primary responsibility for addressing the risk rest more with the government through regulation or with the industry through voluntary action?

When selecting risks associated with accidents, respondents were asked about the likely frequency of occurrence of that problem per thousand wells and, if the problem occurred, how severe it was likely to be. They chose from a list of potential probabilities stated as percentages and severities defined by qualitative statements. Together, each respondent's probability and severity choices were treated as notional descriptions of expected values.

We identified potential experts using media stories, blogs, the academic literature on shale gas risks, and information about organizations that have played a prominent and substantive role in the debate, generating more than one thousand names of experts from four core groups: academics, NGOs (primarily environmental groups), regulators (primarily state and federal regulators plus river-basin commissions), and the industry. …

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