The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale

What position does this book take on the fracking debate?

This book does not take an explicit stance or make recommendations on whether natural gas development should occur in the Marcellus Shale. This book seeks instead to provide the scientific information that one might reasonably need in order to make decisions on this topic.

Isn’t fracking bad for the environment?

Yes. All large-scale energy production and use has negative environmental consequences. The issue is not whether fracking is harmful, but whether it is more harmful to the environment, and in which particular ways, than other large-scale energy production. A corollary question is: How do we reduce dependence on large-scale energy production?

What topics does The Science Beneath the Surface cover, and what does it not discuss?

This book reviews the major Earth and environmental science issues associated with exploitation of a major shale gas deposit, the Marcellus Shale, especially from the perspective of New York State. It reviews why natural gas exists in the Marcellus shale; how it is extracted by high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing (HVHF); environmental impacts upon water resources, ecosystems, and health; and impacts on greenhouse gases and climate change. It also reviews natural gas in the context of current energy use; considerations in assessing risk; and resources for teaching about the Marcellus shale and energy.

The book does not address issues outside of the natural sciences, such as socioeconomic impacts and policy and regulatory issues.

What is the purpose of this book?

The purpose of the book is to review for lay readers major points of evidence-based information from scientific literature about the natural gas in the Marcellus shale and environmental impacts of its extraction. The book is also intended to help readers understand degrees of uncertainty in current understandings, the energy system context of the issues, and the pedagogical principles that might be considered in teaching about the topic.

Why is this book focused purely on the Marcellus Shale as opposed to many other fossil fuels deposits, and why within the Marcellus is the focus upon New York State?

PRI has active education programs that are focused upon the importance of understanding local Earth and environmental sciences. The Marcellus Shale, regularly in the news in PRI’s own local community in Upstate New York, is a prime example of the sort of topic for which public understanding may usefully contribute to effective decision making.

Why is PRI publishing a book about such a controversial subject?

Controversial issues are controversial, in part, because they are important issues. Science education should play a central role in helping communities make reasoned decisions about the environment, natural resources, and other scientific topics, especially those that are both important and complex and thus potentially difficult to understand. Though PRI does not take positions on policies and regulations, it does support good science and science education. Other topics recently in the news on which PRI provides information include biological evolution and climate change.

How was the book reviewed?

Several dozen individuals with a wide range of expertise on specific aspects of Marcellus geology, drilling, and environmental impacts reviewed parts of the manuscript. Reviewers included individuals from across the spectrum of opinions about Marcellus drilling. Some reviews were provided in the process of writing PRI’s Marcellus Papers, upon which a number of chapters of the book are based, and additional reviews were solicited for drafts of chapters of the book. A list of reviewers is printed in the acknowledgments to the book.

Where has funding for the book come from?

PRI’s Marcellus Shale outreach efforts, including this book, have been supported exclusively by federal funding. This support has included a joint research and extension program funded by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Hatch funds) and Cornell Cooperative Extension (Smith-Lever funds) received from the National Institutes for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF GEO 1016359 and 1035078).

Do you intend to release an updated version of this book in the future?

Depending on public interest and other factors, it is possible that we may produce a revised edition. We would be pleased to receive input about the book, including corrections and suggestions for revisions. If you would like to submit feedback, please click on the "Give us feedback" button on the webpage describing the book.

Why does PRI not take a stance on hydraulic fracturing?

PRI provides science education outreach to help individuals and communities make informed decisions on topics involving Earth and environmental systems, based on available scientific evidence. Advocating for specific decisions potentially undermines our credibility to the claim of analyzing and presenting relevant information fairly and impartially. For related reasons, our federal funding does not allow for advocacy of particular actions. Moreover, an important role of PRI outreach is to provide information about current scientific consensus; in this case, the relative amount and kinds of environmental damage from HVHF is a complex topic that remains the subject of substantial scientific research and, on some topics, uncertainty.

Why is this book titled "A Very Short Guide" when it is 252 pages long?

Science Beneath the Surface is part of a series of books published by PRI called “Very Short Guides.” These include Evolution and Creationism (by Warren Allmon) and Climate Change Past, Present, and Future (by Warren Allmon, Trisha Smrecak, and Robert Ross). The term “Very Short Guides.” also references the idea that the Guides are introductions, representing only a small fraction of the content within each of the respective topics.

Does the book assume that HVHF will happen in New York State?

No. The book focuses on New York State, where PRI is located, and where much of the current controversy over drilling in the Marcellus has occurred in recent years. But the work applies also to other states in the Marcellus region where drilling is already occurring, and in general terms to other areas that do or may experience shale gas drilling. Though we do not know if or when the moratorium in New York State may be lifted, it is important to consider possible environmental outcomes if and when it is.