Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking

A Lewis M. Branscomb Forum | Los Angeles, July 24-25, 2013

Published Jul 26, 2013

The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists held its second Lewis M. Branscomb Forum on July 24th and 25th, 2013, in Los Angeles. The topic was "Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking."

Get the information you need to get involved

Our fracking information toolkit is for people who want to participate in community decisions about fracking. It will help you ask critical questions, distinguish reliable information from misinformation and spin, and identify and engage with key stakeholders in your community's decision-making process.

Our report, "Toward an Evidence-Based Debate: Science, Democracy, and Community Right to Know in Unconventional Oil and Gas Development," offers an in-depth look at the state of scientific knowledge about fracking and related technological advances, and discusses barriers to informed participation in community decision-making.

Forum webcast video

View the summary video above, or click the links below to see the full webcast, plus videos highlighting non-technical and expert perspectives.

Full forum webcast (2:45:35).

The Curious Case of Fracking (03:34).

Reflections from Experts and Others (05:21).

Download a summary of the forum (PDF)


About the forum

The forum convened leading thinkers from academia, industry, government, non-governmental organizations, and community groups to delve into some of the most complex challenges around fracking, centered on the following themes:

  • the current state of the science and knowledge gaps
  • the current policy and regulatory landscape; and
  • public access to information and civic engagement.

The event, hosted in partnership with the UCLA School of Law, was one of a series of Forums organized by the Center for Science and Democracy to address constraints on the roles of science, evidence-based decision-making and constructive debate in US public discourse and public policy.

For any questions or further information about the event, email Danielle at [email protected].

Issue background

Hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") involves drilling a well into shale formations deep underground and injecting millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and sand under high pressure to break open fissures in the rocks and release oil and natural gas. Recent advances in horizontal drilling and fracking techniques have dramatically changed the country's energy landscape. Fracking makes it easier to reach previously inaccessible oil and natural gas reserves, leading to a rapid expansion in domestic oil and gas production.

As public attention to fracking has increased significantly over the past few years, policy decisions and public discussions throughout the country have become impassioned and polarized. Opinions, rhetoric, and approaches to decision making on fracking at both the local and national level are extremely diverse. While some states and towns are restricting fracking as they determine how to proceed, others are allowing development at an exponential pace. In many cases, fracking projects are moving forward without sufficient consideration or availability of robust and independent scientific information and data. Many people believe that better information and stronger regulations are needed to understand and reduce the potential environmental and public health risks of fracking.

In policy debates, we hear much discussion about the immense potential for cheaper energy production. Some also perceive the growth in natural gas production as positive news for mitigating climate change, since burning natural gas produces fewer global warming emissions than coal and oil. However, the drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells, and its transportation in pipelines, results in the leakage of methane—a far more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. And whether natural gas has lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil depends on the assumed leakage rate, the timeframe and global warming potential of methane, the energy conversion efficiency, and other factors.

Fracking is also being used to extract oil from unconventional sources such as shale formations, which requires a higher number of drilling wells per barrel of crude oil as compared to conventional oil extraction, leading to potentially higher emissions and environmental impacts for shale oil extraction. Moreover, indirect impacts of fracking operations, including the largely unknown composition of fracking fluid, the fate and disposal of waste fluid, high levels of fresh water use, industrialization of rural landscapes, increased traffic and air pollution, and the impacts of mining the sand needed for fracking, have raised public health, environmental, and economic questions.

A stronger role for independent science to inform public dialogue and decision making on fracking is essential for communities to responsibly approach this complex issue.

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