Universities should be working to answer outstanding questions about shale development, but until they do the practice should proceed cautiously, if it proceeds at all, a Cornell University professor told students in Pittsburgh on Friday.

Antony Ingraffea, an expert on rock fractures and one of the leading academic critics of shale development, spoke to a packed house at the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh about the “myths and realities” of shale.

“All these myths have an element of truth,” he said, adding that universities should be working to “remove the mythologies from the myth,” both by revealing inaccuracies in the current debate and by finding answers to unknowns and uncertainties.

“There are things we know and things that we don’t know about unconventional gas,” Ingraffea said.

In a two-hour lecture to more than 50 students, professors and others interested in shale, he challenged the history of hydraulic fracturing, wastewater recycling figures, the frequency of gas migration and the relative cleanliness of shale gas.

Although a respected academic, Ingraffea doesn’t believe in staying back from the debate.

“What I try to practice is science-based advocacy,” he said.

Ingraffea gives frequent talks on shale development and Gasland director Josh Fox used Ingraffea’s work in his “re-rebuttal” of challenges to his documentary by Energy In Depth (see Shale Daily, Feb. 16).

As a resident of New York, he said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to advocate for a moratorium on shale drilling in Pennsylvania, but he said he was pleased that such drilling wasn’t taking place in his home state. The reason is because he believes significant unanswered questions remain regarding shale development.

Ingraffea said he has spent more than 25 years working with the oil and gas industries, going back to a three-year stint in the unconventional gas program at the U.S. Department of Energy-backed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the mid-1980s followed by a period working with — “not for,” he said — the oilfield services giant Schlumberger Ltd.

That work involved simulating hydraulic fracturing using sandstone slabs in a laboratory to understand how fluids moved through rock formations – using ideal settings as a starting point for understanding real world complexities.

Ingraffea believes “fracking” is a misnomer.

“It’s refracking,” he said, because the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground opens up natural fractures in the rocks, making it more difficult “to predict the effects of induced fracturing.”

“What we found out after doing all these simulations is that we could get any answer we want and that’s still the case, in my perspective,” he said, noting that the research made the cover of the Journal of Petroleum Technology in June 1989.

Ingraffea thinks that many of the assurances about shale development don’t tell the whole story.

He agrees with the oft-repeated claim that hydraulic fracturing is a proven technology used more than 1 million times over the past 60 years without a documented case of migration, but said “that is not the only technology we’re talking about.” The combination of hydraulic fracturing, directional drilling, high-volume fracturing fluids, slickwater fracturing fluids and multi-well drilling pads is “about a decade old” and used only 20,000 times, and “there are still some problems,” he said.

On the claim that the industry is recycling 70% or more of its wastewater in Pennsylvania, up from 20% last year, Ingraffea pointed to a recent reporting debacle to say that the rate is closer to 40% (see Shale Daily, March 11).

“That’s a good improvement, but the industry isn’t yet where it needs to be,” he said.

While he believes industry is stepping up to invent better recycling methods, he also believes that the rush to invent those technologies proves that the hydraulic fracturing of 60 years ago is not identical to the process used today.

Ingraffea believes well construction methods don’t guarantee the long-term protection of groundwater resources because of corrosion and because of the hard-to-predict nature of shallow gas encountered en route to deeper shales.

Finally, he attacked one of the central tenets of natural gas: it’s cleanliness. While he admits that natural gas burns cleaner than any other fossil fuel, he said that new research from his fellow Cornell professor Robert Howarth – set for publication soon – suggests that vented and leaked methane could make greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas higher than coal or oil.

“What we are saying is that there’s not enough science to answer the question.” Ingraffea said.

Ingraffea is the academic counterpoint to Terry Engelder, the Penn State University geologist who helped spawn interest in the Marcellus Shale through his reserve estimates in 2008 and is generally supportive of drilling. The two professors occasionally debate publicly, most recently at a January symposium in LaPorte, Pa. “Tony and I have the same objective, which is: If it’s going to be done, there’s only one way, and that’s the right way,” Engelder said at the summit.

While both supporters and opponents of shale development are guilty of spewing “gushers of hogwash,” Engelder said, debate in the academic community is often about different interpretations of established facts, such as the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas. “We treat each other with respect, we discuss this and we discuss this in a civil way. I would hope that over the years, Tony and I generally end up liking each other as a result of the process,” he said.