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Common Ground Found in Shale Gas Debate

The policy landscape of shale gas development has been "dominated" by contradictory opinions, but there are "pathways" to a consensus, according to an analysis by Resources for the Future (RFF).

RFF's Center for Energy Economics and Policy (CEEP) has published "Pathways to Dialogue: What the Experts Say About the Environmental Risks of Development," which is said to be the first survey-based, statistical analysis of the view of experts about the top environmental risks related to shale gas development from government agencies, industry, academia and nongovernmental organizations (NGO).

CEEP's Alan Krupnick, Hal Gordon and Sheila Omstead analyzed responses from 215 experts in the four groups and found there was indeed common ground.

"The results stand in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of much of the public debate," they wrote. There is, in fact, a "high degree of consensus...about the specific risks to mitigate," which were identified by all four groups as needing more regulation by government and/or voluntary action by industry.

Those who responded to the lengthy survey, which was compiled into an 81-page report, were asked to choose from a total of 264 "risk pathways" that linked shale gas development activities to "burdens" such as air pollution, noise or groundwater contamination.

Respondents also were given the opportunity to choose from 14 potential accidents and to offer their qualitative assessment of the probability that the accidents could happen and how severe they might be.

Some of the consensus risks identified haven't merited much outcry in the public square, said the CEEP team. For example, the groups overall cited potential shale development risks to surface water, such as on lakes, rivers and streams, but they were less likely to identify potential risks to underground aquifers and groundwater.

Progress toward "productive dialogues may be most likely achieved" in routine operations and in potential accidents, they found.

Of the possible 264 routine risk pathways, 20 were chosen most frequently by each group as those that were priorities for further action. Of the 20 priorities, 12 were chosen by at least one-third of all of the groups:

When asked about priorities among 14 potential accidents, all of the experts identified the same two, which both centered on well construction: cement failure and casing failure.

Of the top "environmental burdens" that should be priorities, the "fluid burden" was identified most often: the naturally occurring radioactive materials found in hydraulic fracturing flowback and produced water, as well as in drilling fluids and cuttings.

Given "no sharing option," those surveyed also were asked to choose whether government or industry should be the "primary party with authority to address the risks that the experts selected as priorities. "NGO, academic, and government experts selected government more often than industry, whereas industry experts selected government and industry equally," the report said.

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