ESE Keystone 2013 - World Cafe & Documentary Screening Recap

The Ecological Sciences and Engineering (ESE) program's second Keystone Series consisted of three events that fostered interdisciplinary discussion on High Volume Natural Gas Extraction.


At the first event, the World Café Interdisciplinary Topic Discussion, more than 50 ESE faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and invited guests discussed this current and controversial topic.

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The meeting began with an introduction to the topic by ESE students Elizabeth Trybula and Julia Wiener.   The overview described key issues related to shale gas production, highlighting the recent politicized rhetoric that has influenced national discussion around it. The presentation featured short interviews with Dr. Loring Nies (Department of Civil Engineering) and Dr. Paul Shepson (Departments of Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences and Chemistry) who brought their expertise in potential biophysical impacts including water resources and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as their perspectives on the broader national discussion.


This introduction prepared the audience for the second part of the meeting, during which Dr. Elizabeth McNie facilitated a "World Cafe" style discussion. Participants were invited to join small groups at several tables, each focused on a different core discussion topics previously identified by the ESE Keystone Leadership Team. The purpose of these discussions was not to advocate for positions or sides of a debate, but to encourage participants to dialogue with one another and reflect on the topic complexities and generate key questions that they would like to better understand.

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After three rounds of discussion, each small group selected 3 unresolved questions about their specific table’s discussion topic and shared these questions with the large group. These questions, copied below, would be posed to the panel speakers at the third 2013 Keystone Series event.


The second 2013 ESE Keystone Series event consisted in the screening of two documentary films: “Unearthed, The Fracking Façade” and “Fault Lines: Fracking in America, Al Jazeera”. Approximately 20 students and faculty watched the films and wrote down their impressions, ideas and questions. Discussion followed the screening, and participants were able to share their reactions to the issues raised in the documentaries and to identify potential bias and rhetoric present in them.


The events provided a baseline for campus discussion, identifying the following major questions:

Data (specifically, the lack of data) was a big theme across many discussions at the World Café event.  As one moderator described, participants were ‘hungry for data’, and largely unaware of what types of data might reasonably exist.  Participants indicated that they would like to know specific quantities to put the broader practice of high volume natural gas extraction into context.  Examples of such data might be the total volume of gas available for extraction and the source of the estimate, the number of faulty well casings installed as a percentage of total wells installed, or the number of non-disclosure agreements signed with respect to the number of industry-issued water buffaloes.  It was clear that the absence of credited information make the discussion tiring for many engaged individuals who are challenged by a desire to mitigate impacts without understanding the extent of the impacts. 

Key questions include:

  1. How does the industry determine which gas is worth extracting?
  2. What is the longevity of available natural gas compared to other energy sources?
  3. Technology improves over time, is there evidence that the process of gas extraction has become less risky? 
  4. Does the data exist to make informed decisions?  If not, what obstacles exist to generating credible data? To what level do you (industry and the media) engage the research community about the pros and cons about the fracturing process -- what level of engagement into the science occurs?


Representation in the media was another major theme and was tied to the absence of data in discourse.  Some perspectives included a strong distrust of media due to experiences where content taken out of context and limited accountability existed for corrections.  Concern over misinformation and bias led to discussions on the influence of media format and national discourse, such as short-format articles in daily papers that are increasingly accessed online versus long-format documentaries or article series.

Key questions include: 

  1. What are some of the intentions of major stakeholders when trying to get information to the public? 
  2. What are the roles of varied media formats in the discourse of high volume natural gas extraction? 
  3. How does tone and representation of various stakeholders affect or engender trust in discourse and decision-making?


Language describing the process may be one of the more divisive aspects of high volume natural gas extraction.  Differentiating between the terms ‘hydraulic fracturing’ and ‘natural gas extraction’ can result in two entirely different conversations regarding the extent of the impacts made. 

Key questions:

  1. In the areas that you represent, where do you observe discourse that engenders trust?  What improvements could be made?
  2. From your perspective, how informed is the general public about the process, benefits, and potential impacts of natural gas extraction?


Role. Natural gas is often described as a bridge fuel.  Where is the bridge going, and what decisions in natural gas development influence its direction?   

Key questions: 

  1. How does the export of natural gas affect its role in the U.S. economy as a bridge fuel?
  2. Will cheap natural gas for 100 years undermine non-carbon sources of energy? (i.e. not a bridge, but a new highway to big climate problems?) 


Policy, Law, and Regulation appear to be issues at the heart of the controversy.  The extent of potential impacts and paths to mitigate those impacts are compromised by non-disclosure agreements, exemptions from federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, as well as federal decisions and an increasing frequency of proposed legislation that restricts the availability information of extraction processes.

Key questions:

  1. How is information being conveyed to decision-makers?  
  2. Are non-disclosure statements implemented by most companies?
  3. If safe/correct drilling procedures are followed, can these incidents be reduced, or is contamination going to be an issue no matter what methods are put into place?
  4. What would bringing hydraulic fracturing into regulatory compliance with existing federal legislation do to the economics of extraction?


Tradeoffs of natural gas production exist, which are particularly evident at the local level.  What are the benefits of gas extraction to local communities and what is the timeframe of these benefits?  There are some concerns that natural gas extraction is following a boomtown model.  What aspects of this development pose problems (particularly in rural communities), and how can these be addressed in the interests of the communities?

Key questions:

  1. What are the key motivating factors for land owners to sign leases with the industry? 
  2. How does the boomtown model fit what is occurring in areas of natural gas extraction?  How long does the economic boom last in some of these towns?  
  3. Does natural gas extraction have to occur at its current rate?  In other words, what would it look like if the process of gas development were balanced with practices that also prioritize community development? 

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