Carnegie Mellon symposium explores effect of Marcellus Shale gas

Updated : September 24, 2013
Press release by JIE
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A symposium on Marcellus Shale drilling at Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday was the latest initiative undertaken by the school as it tries to carve a niche in the crowded world of energy academia.

CMU’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation hosted the National Academy of Engineering Symposium, a series of talks between academics, energy executives and environmental experts on the controversial development extracting natural gas from across Appalachia. More than 300 attendees mingled on campus with visiting students accepted to the Class of 2017.

School administrators hope the university’s emphasis on shale research lasts long after that graduation day.

Last month, a group of CMU researchers traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers on the creation of a government-university-industry shale research group, and the Scott Institute published a policymaker guide that serves as a catch-all primer on shale drilling for legislators.

The institute was boosted by a $30 million gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced at the opening of Thursday’s symposium. The funding for energy efficiency research is the largest private foundation grant in the school’s history.

The Scott Institute is one of several new shale-centric initiatives at local universities. The year-old Washington and Jefferson College Center for Energy Policy and Management is headed by former Department of Environmental Protection attorney Diana Stares and held its own symposium on energy extraction Thursday.

If the academic interest in shale research is a long-term investment, the event at CMU Thursday seemed to follow suit with one eye trained on future impacts of gas drilling.

From an industry perspective, increasing the use of natural gas in transportation is crucial to keeping demand for the fuel high.

One high-profile customer of compressed natural gas vehicles represented at the event, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, is phasing CNG use into its fleet of 730 buses, said interim CEO Ellen McLean.

Plans are in place to retrofit an East Liberty garage where buses could fill up on CNG, which retails at around $1.90 per equivalent gallon of regular gasoline. The Port Authority now uses about 600,000 gallons of clean diesel every month at a locked-in price of around $3.32 per gallon, said Ms. McLean.

The final talk of the day on the environmental impact of shale development drew a number of audience questions about the heavy use of water in hydraulic fracturing.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which launched last month as a best-practices coalition of industry, environmentalist and philanthropic organizations, has asked drillers seeking the group’s stamp of approval to stop the surface discharge of wastewater generated by drilling.

All contaminated flowback water is supposed to be recycled or injected deep underground until the organization arrives at safe standards, said Andrew Place, interim director of the organization and the corporate director of energy and environmental policy at Downtown-based EQT Corp.

The drilling process uses millions of gallons of water to fracture wells, though some alternatives to the process exist, said Mr. Place. Nitrogen has been used to frack in some Canadian formations, he said.

In fact, in his “highly speculative” opinion, Mr. Place said he’d be surprised if drillers were still using water to frack 20 years from now.

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