Press Release

What the Experts Say about the Environmental Risks of Shale Gas Development

Resources for the Future releases results of first survey of shale gas experts.
Feb 7, 2013

WASHINGTON—There is notable consensus among experts about the key risks associated with shale gas production and development, according to a report released by Resources for the Future’s Center for Energy Economics and Policy (CEEP)​ today.

Pathways to Dialogue: What the Experts Say about the Environmental Risks of Shale Gas Development is the first survey-based, statistical analysis of experts from government agencies, industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify the priority environmental risks related to shale gas development. The report can be accessed at

“We found a remarkable overlap for the most frequently cited risks by experts from different perspectives,” said CEEP Director Alan Krupnick, who carried out the analysis with co-authors Sheila Olmstead and Hal Gordon. “In fact, if we look at the 20 most frequently cited risks, 12 are common to all the groups.”

Over 200 experts responded to the survey. It asked them to choose among 264 possible risk pathways that link routine shale gas development activities—from site development to well abandonment—to the burdens (such as stormwater flows) that impact the environment and local communities in various ways (effects on surface water quality, for example). The experts were asked to identify their high-priority risks—defined as those for which they believe government regulation and/or voluntary industry practices are currently inadequate to protect the public or the environment.

Several of the 12 consensus risks pertain to impacts that have received relatively little attention in the popular debate. For example, the experts frequently identified the potential impacts on lakes, rivers, and streams (surface water) as a priority; less frequently, they identified potential risks to underground aquifers (groundwater).

Of the 12 consensus risk pathways:

  • 7 involve potential risks to surface water,
  • 2 involve potential risks to air quality,
  • 2 involve potential risks to groundwater, and
  • 1 is related to habitat disruption.

Only 2 of the consensus risks identified by the experts are unique to the shale gas development process, and both have potential impacts on surface water. The remaining 10 consensus risks relate to practices common to gas and oil development in general, such as the construction of roads, well pads, and pipelines and the potential for leaks in casing and cementing.

“By identifying the areas of agreement—and disagreement—among stakeholders, we believe this report can serve as a foundation for a more productive dialogue about how shale gas development should proceed in the United States,” said Krupnick.

Shale gas development and production has lowered the cost of electricity and residential and commercial energy, and holds promise of future economic benefits. It remains controversial because of possible health and environmental impacts. The survey is part of a $1.2 million, multi-year effort, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to provide a broad, independent assessment of the current understanding of the environmental risks associated with shale gas development as well as ways to manage them.

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Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is an independent and nonpartisan institution.