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Science Nation: Hydraulic Fracturing--Using Scientific Methods to Evaluate Trade-Offs

4 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, a globe is filled with water. Title: Science Nation. Behind a chain-link fence, a semi-truck passes a tower of scaffolding.

(narrator) In Colorado, drilling for oil and natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is big business. But questions about its impact on the air and water are far from settled.

(male) One side was constantly contradicting the other side.

(Describer) A mountain range stands beyond large storage tanks.

So we thought, "That's the perfect role for an academic endeavor in this area."

(Describer) Vials are placed in a machine.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, environmental engineer Joseph Ryan at the University of Colorado, Boulder, heads a team gathering data on the impact of oil and gas development on the environment.

(male) The big goal of our project is to take the scientific information and figure out a way to put that into a decision framework, some way to turn that information into knowledge that can improve our approach to making regulations and developing policy in this area.

(Describer) On a tablet in a small truck, a graph shows a flat line bending upward.

This graph in the lower right, the red line, shows the increasing level of methane.

(narrator) Research scientist Bruce Vaughn covers a lot of ground in this mobile laboratory. He's measuring methane, a greenhouse gas that is one by-product of oil and natural gas extraction.

(Describer) He opens the back of the truck, which has a thin tower on top.

Here's what's in back of the truck. This is a cavity ring-down laser spectrometer. It's measuring methane and methane C-13.

(Describer) He drives on.

One of the most important things we could bring to this study is a feeling of neutrality. We really are all about producing solid science that will help feed the debate with some real information. We don't really have a horse in this race.

(Describer) A woman injects something into a cylinder.

(female) To simulate a spill of fracturing fluids, we're injecting a mixture of four different compounds.

(narrator) Ryan's team wants to know more about how long fracking chemicals might persist in the ecosystem should they make their way into the groundwater.

(Describer) Jessica Rogers:

We'll see how quickly those compounds are removed naturally. Some of those compounds are removed rather quickly and some of the other compounds stay around for quite a while, which could present more of a problem for groundwater contamination.

(Describer) The small truck goes through a neighborhood.

(narrator) The project also looks at issues such as air quality, human health, and energy sustainability.

(male) We want to be able to reach people who may have oil and gas development going on nearby them. They don't know where to get information they can trust. The difficulty in trying to reconcile these two opposing points of view, may force them to realize that there must be some better source of information.

(narrator) A renewable energy economy is likely decades away. Putting science to work, understanding how to maximize the benefits of fossil fuels now, while curbing the negative impacts, that's a powerful idea.

(Describer) A globe turns by the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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In Colorado, drilling for oil and natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, sometimes referred to as fracking, is big business. But questions about its impact on the air and water are far from settled. With support from the National Science Foundation, University of Colorado environmental engineer Joseph Ryan heads a team gathering data on the pros and cons of oil and natural gas development, including the use of hydraulic fracturing. Part of the National Science Foundation Series “Science Nation.”

Media Details

Runtime: 4 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
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Episode 3
4 minutes
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
4 minutes
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Science Nation
Episode 9
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Episode 10
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