Unconventional Hydrocarbons

Unconventional hydrocarbon resources such as shale gas and shale oil are transforming world energy markets. Development of these resources with the technologies of 3D seismic exploration, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has raised important new interdisciplinary research questions about the ultimate size of the resource and whether it can be produced safely while protecting groundwater and local environments.

Also in question is whether expanded use of natural gas as a transition fuel to renewable sources provides a net benefit in mitigating climate change. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, and with much lower carbon dioxide emissions. Substitution of natural gas for coal in power generation during the last five years has already helped to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the US to their lowest levels since 1994. But methane, the main component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Fugitive emissions of only a few percent during extraction and transportation of natural gas may negate its benefits of reduced carbon dioxide emissions during combustion.

Research at YCEI seeks to generate basic and applied knowledge needed to minimize environmental consequences of unconventional hydrocarbons and to shape policies that promote a cleaner transition to low-carbon energy sources. Our approach involves conducting scientific studies to characterize the environmental, economic and social risks at different stages of unconventional resource development.  

Our first efforts will focus on integrated water management during the lifecycle of unconventional resources. This research includes field work in northeastern Pennsylvania to understand water sourcing, use and disposal associated with hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale. We have also begun a study of new remote-sensing technologies that can provide better standards for environmental mapping before, during and after resource development. In the coming year, we will begin to study research issues associated with the economic and climate impacts of unconventional hydrocarbons.

We view this scientific research as essential to informed regulatory and policy choices. We are also working on regulatory policy directly with the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy at Yale Law School and the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School. These efforts aim at identifying gaps in federal, state and local regulations covering extraction of unconventional resources, and at putting information about best management practices into the hands of local governments. Towards that end, we have been bringing together stakeholders from across the country for a series of workshops. Participants from a symposium held in December 2013 at Pace Law School and a workshop held in March 2014 at Yale Law School are producing a white paper with guidance for local regulators on best technical and regulatory practices for managing local impacts of resource development.

These two events were the follow-up to a scientific and technical symposium on unconventional resources held jointly with the New York and New England Chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers held in March 2013.