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The endless search for energy has led us to Marcellus Shale and a debate over the issue of hydraulic fracturing. The Marcellus Shale formation, named after a town in upstate New York, lies beneath three-quarters of Pennsylvania and parts of New York, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. Geologists have known about the Appalachian Basin's Marcellus shale for decades, but it took the 21st Century high gas prices and hydraulic fracturing techniques to set off the drilling rush. Shale gas has completely changed the U.S. natural gas market and is a very promising natural resource in the United States.

This technique — "fracking" — combined with horizontal drilling allows plentiful supplies of natural gas to be removed from once unworkable shale formations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes "hydraulic fracturing" as a well stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources. "Fracking fluid," made up of water and chemical additives, is pumped into shale formations at high pressure forcing perforations in the long horizontal arm of the well causing the shale to crack. After the fractures are created, a propping agent, often sand, is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing and allowing the gas trapped there to escape up the well. When fracturing is completed, the injected fracturing fluids rise to the surface and are collected to be disposed of or reused in other wells. The gas industry maintains the process is safe for people and the environment. Others fear unrecovered "fracking fluid" may mean risking something even more precious -- the water supply.

Many Americans are interested in possible sources of energy in their backyards, while many more worry about the environmental risks. In Pennsylvania alone, an estimated 60,000 Marcellus wells will dot the Pennsylvania landscape by 2030. This high volume energy production has the potential to be highly profitable for the gas industry and landowners who lease drilling rights. Economically depressed communities seeking revenue welcome the jobs from fracking. Schools have been funded with natural gas dollars, and roads fixed and businesses revitalized because of the Marcellus Shale industry's presence. Yet there are environmental and health concerns focusing on the toxic chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, water use and disposal, and air pollution.

Concerns are emerging as communities in the Appalachian Basin's Marcellus formation become congested with drill rigs, waste ponds, compressor stations, and diesel trucks. The energy boom has turned neighbor against neighbor, split towns and families with bitter disagreements and touched off sharp debates over the sudden appearance of gas companies and their drilling rigs. One side touts the jobs and prosperity drilling brings, allowing businesses to flourish and farmers to hang on to their land. Gas leases have made some property owners wealthy. Economically strapped regions are suddenly flush with cash. On the other side are those who either won't gain anything or just believe the wealth isn't worth the risk of toxic spills or tainted drinking water.


Stakeholders from all sides of the debate have contacted your company for some answers. They want to protect the environment and the safety of the local residents. At the same time, they don't want to create obstacles that might unnecessarily stifle the Marcellus Shale economy. Local and State leaders are looking to your team for an ESS analysis of the "fracking" issue to provide some valuable insights for dealing with this possible economic versus environment dilemma.

Beyond the local and state levels, natural gas from shale has become an integral part of the national energy agenda, to not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce our dependence on foreign energy. In spite of that, there may be environmental issues to be considered with the extraction and life cycle of natural gas from shale formations. One of the more global issues, fugitive emissions, has emerged in the debate over shale gas. Fugitive emissions are mostly volatile organic compounds such as methane. They are among the environmental consequences associated with any fossil fuel production, processing, transmission, or incomplete consumption. The emphasis on Marcellus Shale has generated interest from federal environmental agencies concerned with possible climate impacts from the extraction process and life cycle of natural gas from shale formations. The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), an independent subcommittee to the U.S. Department of Energy, has selected your Earth system science group to provide testimony examining the relative environmental significance -- risks and/or benefits -- of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas from shale compared to other fossil fuel extraction methods and life cycles. They are particularly interested in a clarification of the Global Warming Potentials (GWPs) for fugitive emissions such as the methane associated with all fossil fuel extraction methods and life cycles.


Date: 8/9/2011

Scenario Images:

Pennsylvania's Buried Treasure
The shale in Pennsylvania alone holds about 60% of the natural gas in the entire Marcellus region. (Source) Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (

Geology of Natural Gas Resources
The EIA diagram shows the geologic nature of most major sources of natural gas. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have made gas –rich shale gas an economically viable alternative to conventional gas resources.

View of a Marcellus Shale site near Dimock, Pa.
A view of a Marcellus Shale site near a farm, Dimock, Pa. in Susquehanna County. Courtesy Lindsay Speer

Fracking site on Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania
Fracking site on Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. Courtesy Lindsay Speer.

Marcellus Shale: the Science and the Policy
See Video Clip (1 of 4) and Video Clip (2 of 4) "Marcellus Shale: The Science and The Policy", from the Center for Environmental Research at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.



Hydraulic Fracturing - Breaking Fuel From the Rock (Cycle A)
This is the National Geographic interactive look at the extraction of natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation.


Marcellus Shale - Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play (Cycle A)
New research results surprise everyone on the potential of this well-known Devonian black shale.


Methane and Fracking Issues (Cycle A)
A blog posting by NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt on the issues surrounding hydraulic fracking processes and their climatic impact. Contains links to other publications surrounding methane and aerosol interactions.


National Geographic - Special Report: The Great Shale Gas Rush (Cycle A)
Pennsylvania sits atop one of the largest reservoirs of natural gas in the world, a resource that could boost jobs and shake up the national energy equation.


Natural Gas Basics 101 (Cycle A)
This background reference was developed by the Energy Information Administration as part of their Web site on Energy Basics.


PRI - Geology of the Marcellus Shale (Cycle A)
Paleontological Perspective on a Modern Resource


PRI - Notes from the Marcellus (Cycle A)
Essays on the news and findings regarding scientific research on the Marcellus shale and the impacts of shale gas drilling.


PRI - The Marcellus Papers (Cycle A)
See Introduction to the Marcellus Shale plus several excellent resources.


Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) looks at the film "Gasland" (Cycle B)
The boom in natural gas drilling and some possible consequences are explored. Filmmaker Josh Fox is interviewed about "Gasland", his Sundance award-winning documentary on the surprising consequences of natural gas drilling.


Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated (Cycle B)
Scientific American article casting doubt on natural gas as a more climate friendly fuel.


Fossil Fuels - The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Our Energy Sources (Cycle B)
The United States gets 84% of its total energy from fossil fuels. What do we need to know about fossil fuels?


NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies have found that that methane concentrations have increased 150% since 1750, far exceeding the natural range of the past 650,000 years.


Fugitive Emissions Resource - EDUCATION: GLOBAL METHANE INVENTORY (Cycle B)
The Global Methane Inventory project of the Institute on Climate and Planets (ICP) was started in 1996 to compile a current, complete, and internationally recognized inventory of sources of methane and methane emissions. The project is led by Elaine Matthews of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS).


IPCC Global Warming Potentials (Cycle B)
IPCC definition of GWP and how to calculate. GWPs are expressed in terms of emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common and important human-induced greenhouse gas because of its abundance and ability to absorb energy in the form of infrared radiation which produces heat.


Natural Gas from Shale Worse for Global Warming than Coal (Cycle B)
A Cornell study concludes, "The large green house gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming."


Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations (Cycle B)
Global Warming Potentials (GWPs) and atmospheric lifetimes are from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007, Table 2.14), except for the atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide (CO2)


Classroom Resources for Extraction of Natural Gas from the Marcellus Shale (Cycle C)
Each of the topics presented provides background information on the issues associated with extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.


Natural Gas Giant Below the Marcellus - Utica Shale (Cycle C)
A rock layer below the Marcellus Shale could prove to be another incredible source of natural gas. Stacked in the Appalachian Basin, this formation could produce multiple natural gas pay zones.


Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness (Cycle C)
Climate literacy and energy awareness principles are the framework for grade-level specific teaching strategies and materials for teaching the science behind energy and climate issues.


Teaching Energy Sources and Environment Together (Cycle C)
Sources of energy and the environment impacts of getting and using energy maybe the most important topics of the century.


Sample Investigations:


Energy Flow and Fossil Fuel; pp 1-16 (Cycle A)
This activity introduces students to different forms of energy, energy transformations, energy storage, and the flow of energy through systems. Focus is on the chemical energy stored in the remains of ancient sea plants and animals.
Difficulty: beginner


Fossil Fuels: Natural Gas (Cycle A)
This lesson provides an introduction to the use of natural gas as an energy source. This activity is from Environmental Science Activities for the 21st Century, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. It is part of a module on Fossil Fuels, which includes coal, oil, natural gas.
Difficulty: beginner
Topics include its advantages (cleanliness, fewer carbon emissions), disadvantages (difficulty in transport and storage), sources, and usage. There is also a discussion of the creation and production of natural gas, the United States' production and reserves, and some potential new sources.


Natural Gas and the Marcellus Shale (Cycle A)
This homework problem introduces students to the Marcellus shale natural gas play and how an unconventional reservoir rock can become an attractive hydrocarbon target.
Difficulty: advanced


Economics and Emissions (Cycle B)
Students produce a manufactured good, monitor energy consumption, encounter international government regulations, and make choices about emissions and energy choices, and share findings in order to understand how international commerce could affect GHG emissions and the economy.
Difficulty: intermediate


Hydraulic Fracturing (Cycle B)
In this video segment health concerns regarding exposure to chemicals used in natural gas drilling are addressed. An animated diagram shows how the process of hydraulic fracturing—fracking—is used to extract natural gas.

"Fracking." Teachers' Domain. 8 Jul. 2011.
Read Background Essay before watching video and answer Discussion Questions after viewing the video.
Difficulty: intermediate


The Role of the Atmosphere and Greenhouse Effect in Determining the Surface Temperature of the Earth (Cycle B)
This NASA/GISS lesson investigates the nature of the natural greenhouse effect and its effect on making the Earth a habitable planet. The lesson uses interactive software available on the GISS Institute on Climate and Planets website.
Difficulty: intermediate


Marcellus Shale: Natural Gas Energy Resource Guide (Cycle C)
A resource guide of Marcellus Shale Lesson Plans and Activities for elementary to high school.
Difficulty: intermediate


Teaching Energy Sources and Environment Together - What is Marcellus Shale? (Cycle C)
Sources of energy and the environment impacts of getting and using energy maybe the most important topics of the century.

Difficulty: beginner


Trends in Atmospheric Methane Concentrations (Cycle C)
The student will use data from NASA/ICP climate research to investigate the following question: Why is the rate of increase in atmospheric concentrations of methane slowing down?
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Chemical reactions
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal health
        • Personal and community health
        • Natural resources
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
      • The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources
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