Blog Post

Risk Matrix for Shale Gas Development

Aug 12, 2012 | Alan J. Krupnick

Shale gas development raises new environmental and health concerns that are less well-understood than the risks associated with conventional fossil fuel extraction. In addition, concerns traditionally associated with drilling are being raised in areas that have not had to manage these issues until recently. The media have raised the profile of a number of these issues, such as water quality. However, because many of the links between shale gas development and environmental impacts are not well understood, other risks have received little to no attention.

Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, RFF’s Center for Energy Economics and Policy (CEEP) is working to identify how government and industry can responsibly develop shale gas. As a first step, CEEP experts have worked with industry, government, and academic experts to generate a comprehensive set of “impact pathways,” linking the activities associated with the development of a shale gas well to their potential impacts.

About the Matrix

The risk matrix shows how the activities associated with the development of a shale gas well can create burdens that might impact things that people care about, such as groundwater, soil quality, and communities. It identifies the potential risks to be considered when developing a well, examining impacts from widespread drilling activities, or writing regulations. It is important to note that the matrix shows the potential risks. It does not show the impacts that have occurred, but rather those that could plausibly occur under normal operating conditions.

The list of activities was developed in consultation with academic experts, who helped the RFF research team better understand each part of the process. The list of burdens was created using information garnered from visits to shale gas development sites; discussions with various stakeholders, including industry experts, regulatory experts, NGOs, and academics; and reports on the potential impacts of the process. The risk matrix does not make any judgment on the severity or importance of each burden or impact—something that will be addressed in CEEP's expert and public surveys on this topic.​

Using the Matrix

The full matrix is available on page 57 of the RFF report, Pathways to Dialogue: What the Experts Say about the Environmental Risks of Shale Gas Development.

The matrix is designed so that users can start at either the left column or the top row. The left column lists the Activities that comprise the shale gas development process. Each Activity is a potential source of risk. The top row identifies aspects of the environment that could be impacted during the shale gas development process, such as air quality, groundwater, etc. At the intersections of the rows (Activities) and the columns (Impacts) are the Burdens, which could be created by an Activity and which would have potential Impacts that people care about.

The shale gas development Activities have been divided into the following six categories. Click on a link below to see the specific Activities, Burdens, and Impacts in that area.

  • Site Development and Drilling Preparation
  • Drilling Activities
  • Fracturing and Completion
  • Well Operation and Production
  • Fracturing Fluids, Flowback, and Produced Water Storage and Disposal
  • Other Activities

CEEP Director Alan Krupnick explains how to use the Risk Matrix for Shale Gas Development. 

It is important to note that this matrix does not take into account accidents or other extreme events, which could potentially occur, but rather those that may occur from routine operations. Furthermore, this matrix does not extend to the final impacts of each burden outlined. Each may have final impacts on human health, markets, ecosystems, climate change, and/or quality of life; however, these are not addressed here.

Contact CEEP

For more information about CEEP's Risk Matrix for Shale Gas Development, contact Alan Krupnick​, RFF Senior Fellow and Director of CEEP.