A team of scientists, engineers and educators from the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) has been charged by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore ways that maximize the benefits of natural gas development while minimizing potential negative effects.
The NSF Sustainability Research Networks (SRN), which is providing a $12 million grant for the natural gas research, also agreed to fund equally an interdisciplinary team to look at sustainable climate risk management strategies, which would be led by Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and involve nine other U.S. universities and research institutes.
“Due to national economic and energy security priorities, fossil fuels will likely continue to be a significant part of the energy portfolio in the U.S and throughout the globe for the foreseeable future,” said NSF’s Thomas Peterson, assistant director for engineering. “Climate and coastal regions are likely to be at increasing risk, and water resources and air quality may also become more challenged. The objective of the SRNs is to contribute to building a sound scientific and engineering foundation for addressing such risks and challenges.”
The CU-Boulder-led SRN team would focus on the effects of natural gas development on air and water resources, while Penn State’s team would research how to adapt to and mitigate the risks of climate change, while developing new sustainability strategies in an altered world.
The natural gas effects SRN researchers plan to study social, ecological and economic aspects in the Rocky Mountain region of gas development.
“We all create demand for natural gas, so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction,” said CU-Boulder’s Joseph Ryan, who will lead the gas SRN team. “Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the trade-offs associated with the benefits and costs of natural gas development.”
CU-Boulder researchers would be joined by other experts from the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, University of Michigan, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Colorado School of Public Health and California State Polytechnic University Pomona. An external committee of advisers also include representatives of the oil and gas industry, regulatory agencies, environmental organizations, local governments, academia and Native American tribes.
As part of the effort, researchers plan to evaluate the current state of drilling technology, the integrity of well bore casings, and natural gas collection mechanisms. Two of the project teams would address water resources, with one team reviewing industry practices for hydraulic fracturing (fracking), as well as reviewing improvements in current water treatment technology. The second team would investigate the hydrologic processes tied to potential risks of natural gas and oil extraction, including the effects of fracking on groundwater and aquifer systems.
A monitoring and modeling effort also would look at the potential risks of natural gas and oil development to air quality.
The effort includes a “citizen science” component in which the public would be encouraged to take science measurements, including air quality readings with portable instruments compatible with smart phones, and share the results with the SRN research team.
“The citizen science aspect of this effort,” said CU-Boulder’s Michael Hannigan, “will result in a stronger connection between the public and the science used to make regulatory decisions.”
According to the NSF, human beings live in a new age, many scientists believe, one called the Anthropocene, in which human effects on Earth’s systems are powerful regulators of how those systems function. Or how they are beginning to break down.
The Penn State NSR team’s “vision is to produce improved analysis frameworks, to develop and mentor the next generation of diverse researchers, and to inform decisions for managing climate-related risks in the Anthropocene,” said Penn State geoscientist Klaus Keller, who is principal investigator of the sustainable climate risk management strategies SRN.
Scientists and policymakers have identified the potential for threshold responses, or “tipping points,” in climate change, NSF noted. A melting of the Greenland ice sheet, for example, would cause sea-level rise that could threaten the sustainability of low-lying regions.
“Proposed approaches to the management of climate-related risks through adaptation, mitigation and geoengineering differ in their costs and benefits, and their vulnerability to uncertainties,” said Keller. “Our goal is to advance the foundations of sustainability research through an integrated and quantitative approach that links the social, economic and environmental components of climate risk management.”
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