I started this blog when I was a PhD student at the University of Colorado – Boulder studying the social and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas development (aka fracking) under a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The information is a bit ‘dated’ (2013), but many of the conundrums remain relevant today. While the blog focuses on water quality, there is further information about my research below.  For those preferring to consume information graphically, this illustrative summary may help.



The foundation of our current energy system is based on finite resources that have led to environmental degradation and global conflict. Recognizing this, it is necessary to transition to a more sustainable energy source that is low in carbon and mostly renewable and reliant on local energy sources. During this effort, transitional energy sources that are lower in carbon emission while still being economically viable shall serve as bridge fuels until renewable energy resources can meet current and future energy demands. Technological advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have allowed natural gas to fulfill the role of this bridge fuel. However, there has been limited objective and quantitative information about the impacts associated with such a new technology.

In order to provide reliable information to land owners, local governments, state and federal regulators, and the oil and gas industry in a useful context, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers will contribute to a social-ecological system (SES) model that will address a wide range of effects of unconventional energy development on the delivery of key ecosystem services and the resilience of the social-ecological system. Ecosystem services are the benefits both natural and semi-natural that people obtain from their landscape (MEA, 2003) are often used for environmental economic assessment. However, for current research needs, economic assessment is not the objective, but instead the ecosystem services will simply serve a framework of elements for which scientific research will be used to collect applicable data and assess the multi-dimensional issues associated with energy development.

The social ecological system model will explore the implications of linkages between land use, climate, human behavior and energy in the context of the energy-air-water nexus on multiple spatial and temporal scales. It will analyze the cascading effects that may result when crossing social-ecological thresholds using the framework of ecosystem management decision support (EMDS) modeling. Solutions generated from the assessment will be incorporated as best management practices and communicated to the public in novel ways that promote collaborative decision-making.


Over the last decade, technology has advanced making natural gas reserves that were
once thought to be unreachable, now accessible. Horizontal drilling in combination with
hydraulic fracturing is currently used in the majority of natural gas extraction operations. This process requires large volumes of water, typically a few million gallons per frack, along with an amalgamation of chemical additives, some of which are toxic for human consumption. As a result of the process, volatile organic compounds tied to the generation of ozone, nitrogen oxides and greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. As with many industrial operations, a network of transportation, pipelines and other infrastructure necessary to support the process fragments the landscape, contributing to further environmental stress, while also creating noise pollution and safety hazards for communities. Beyond the natural environment, air and water quality concerns related to energy development have the potential to significantly impact public health through increased morbidity. Non-chemical effects such as stress and anxiety associated with the environmental risks of living within an extraction area combined with social tensions in the community fabric create mental health concerns.
With limited objective and quantitative information, many argue that the pace of
nonconventional energy development exceeds the state of scientific knowledge of the
potential risks. As development encroaches more populated areas along the Front
Range, county and municipal governments have passed moratoriums on drilling in
response to public concerns.


Unconventional oil and gas development consisting of horizontal drilling and hydraulic
fracturing requires large volumes of water and chemical additives that are toxic for
human consumption. Although regulators and the oil and gas industry have proclaimed
that there are minimal environmental and public health risks associated with the
process, there is limited objective and quantitative information about the impacts
associated with this novel technology. Even less attention has been given to the
understanding the non-chemical affects associated with mental health, community
traditions, knowledge systems and social structures. By assessing the impacts of oil
and natural gas development on a multitude of ecosystem services (provisioning,
regulating, cultural and supporting), we can start to understand the ecological and social
impacts necessary to sustain a resilient social-ecological system.

Research Goal

The process of unconventional oil and natural gas development has raised concerns
about risks to air and water quality and the related public health implications.
In order to better understand these risks in the context of a social-ecological system,
research will strive to answer the following questions

  1. What are the effects of oil and gas production from unconventional sources on a
    multifold of ecosystem services?
  2. What are the connections between land-use, climate, human behavior and
  3. What is the range of policy options that would permit maintaining socially and
    economically viable trade-offs between natural gas production and ecosystem
    services from local to regional scales?

The complexity of environmental and human linkages on multiple scales ultimately
creates a “wicked problem”, a problem that arises from uncertainty about future
conditions and differences in social values that make it impossible to define an optimal
solution (Gunderson, 1999; Shindler and Cramer, 1999). Traditionally oil and natural
gas development has occurred in rural areas, but as development encroaches more
populated areas along the Front Range the diverse stakeholder dynamic have further
complicated the debate about risk, policy and economic necessity. Stakeholders include
oil and gas companies, public land managers, farmers, ranchers, ex-urbanites,
suburbanites, urbanites and fractivists. Often these groups share little commonality
among cultural values or concerns about oil and natural gas development. The
following outlines some of the historical questions raised about the safety and
communication of information associated with unconventional oil and gas development.

Historical Questions

  1. The water-energy nexus – How can The Front Range manage a rising energy
    demand with a finite water supply?
  2. What are the public health risks associated with the environmental impacts of
    unconventional oil and gas development?
  3. What are the public safety concerns associated with unconventional oil and gas
    development? Consideration shall be given to setbacks, leaks and spills, flaring,
    truck traffic, and man camps.
  4. How will oil and natural gas impact agricultural production in The Front Range?
    Competition for what rights, land-use, and soil moisture are considerations.
  5. Water quality concerns – What are the most toxic, mobile, and persistent
    compounds associated with unconventional oil and gas development? At what
    stage of the process are water resources the most vulnerable?
  6. Air quality concerns – Unconventional gas and oil extraction result in atmospheric
    emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) tied to the generation of ozone,
    nitrogen oxides (NOx), and greenhouse gases (mostly methane). How can
    emissions be properly monitored and reduced?
  7. How can knowledge systems about unconventional oil and gas development be
    improved? Currently there is a lack of transparency from oil and gas companies
    and resistance to fully disclose the nature of the hydraulic fracturing fluids.
    Environmental groups and documentaries have a tendency to portray any risk as
    unacceptable and some instances have proven to not be associated with oil and
    gas development.
  8. Local government role – Now that oil and gas development is moving toward more populated areas along The Front Range moratoriums and bans are being passed with threats of law suits from the Colorado Oil and Gas ConservationCommission (COGCC). How can local governments educate their community and work with the COGCC to agree on rules and regulations that align with the cultural values and safety considerations of the community?
  9. There is lack of objective and quantitative information that can be used to understand the compatibility between natural gas and oil extraction, other land uses along The Front Range and the trade-offs between economic and environmental resources.
  10. How can stakeholders be involved in planning of the research and future oil and gas development?

Pernicious But Compelling Argument (PBC)

The oil and natural gas industry has become a primary driver of the US economy through the generation of jobs and affordable energy. In order to meet the growing energy demands, the US Energy Information Administration forecasts that natural gas electricity production will nearly double by 2035 (US EIA report, 2013).

The Rocky Mountain Region has played an important role in the development of the energy system of the United States as a place for resource extraction and hydraulic fracturing, fueling the Colorado economy for decades. New technologies have contributed to the growth of the industry at unprecedented rates. However, it was not until the most recent oil and gas boom in which the industry pressed into more populated areas along The Front Range that the process was so heavily contested. In response to public health and safety concerns, county and municipal governments have responded with moratoriums and bans on drilling.

According to a recent study by the University of Colorado (Wobbikind, 2014), a ban on fracking would cost Colorado 68,000 jobs and an estimated $8 billion in economic activity over the next five years. Currently, the industry is responsible for 6% of Colorado’s total employment.  The industry itself employs roughly 50,000 jobs, while supporting 190,000 more. Recently two large oil and gas companies, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Nobel Energy indicated their intention to invest approximately $7 billion dollars over the next five years in Colorado.

Unconventional oil and natural gas development is not only important for our economy, but is necessary to reduce our dependence on coal, which has shown to emit more greenhouse gases per BTU of energy generated and is arguably more destructive to the environment than natural gas production. With our struggling national economy, its role in providing economic development and job creation of oil and natural gas outweighs the environmental risks associated with the process and is essential for improving the welfare of people along The Front Range.

Normative Analysis

Human welfare typically covers aspects ranging from economic prosperity, health and happiness and can generally be associated with the principle of the common good. However, economic notions of prosperity often interact negatively with health and happiness, and underserved populations tend to be particularly vulnerable to the impacts associated with this relationship (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2013). Energy development has a long history of disproportionately burdening communities with regards to environmental and health impacts, creating an imbalance of equality of human welfare values. Unconventional oil and natural gas development is no exception to this trend. Even in cases where communities benefit from economic development through job growth, appreciation of home values and increased tax revenue, these economic gains are often short term, creating what is known as the boom and bust cycle. Upon entering the bust phase, people are left with diminished property values, an environmentally degraded landscape, long term health implications and limited industrial diversification to support their economy, while the rest of the populous maintains the benefits of affordable energy.

Economic prosperity is often measured by steady population growth, the presence of a diversified economic base, education, and a continuous higher standard of living for most residents (Jacquet, 2009). Studies have shown an opposing trend in energy focused communities, which experience less economic diversity, lower levels of education attainment, more income inequality between households and less ability to attract investment in comparison to non-energy focused communities (Jacquet, 2009). The Front Range is vulnerable to these trends, which are already evident in the oil and gas Marcellus Shale Region of Pennsylvania. While energy development has historically been a part of the economy in the Front Range, agriculture has helped maintain economic diversity while open space attracted people searching for a rural and recreational lifestyle. Competition for water leases have made it difficult for many farmers to lease water forcing them to leave their fields fallow, threatening not only a traditional way of life in the region, but food security as well. Shifting land-use towards energy development has led to population trends that now favor migrant workers over ex-urbanites, signaling a future decline in population when the oil and gas fields reach their longevity in 5-40 years.

To a certain degree, affordable energy reduces poverty and hardship by delivering a host of benefits, proving people with reduced heating and cooling costs, inexpensive transportation, and often lower food prices. However, there is a tipping point, for which development becomes a public health liability rather than a benefit for people living in oil and gas communities. Water demands, a multifold of carcinogens with a range of potential pathways for water contamination, emissions, and climate change create a complex problem posing environmental and public health risks. A rise in non-cancerous and cancerous morbidity and mortality cases, mental health cases, crime, divorce, suicide and alcoholism have been documented in energy development communities (Jacquet, 2009). Although affordable energy has brought undeniable benefits to many, local and regional oil and gas communities bear the burden of illness associated with the polluted and degraded environments caused by energy development.

With top-down, federal and state driven regulatory standards, most communities along the Front Range have little involvement in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policy in regards to oil and natural gas development. This creates a classic case of environmental justice where impacted communities “do not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, nor access to the decision making process” to achieve a healthy human welfare state (EPA, 2014). Typically oil and gas production is associated with underserved populations, where access to knowledge and health care is often limited, creating a further injustice.

Seventeen principles of environmental justice have served as a defining document for many movements striving to achieve equity (First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, 1991).  Two particularly resonate with trends associated with unconventional oil and natural gas development; 1) the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things, and 2) the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse culture perspectives. Current trends indicate that land-use in energy development areas along the Front Range are moving away from equilibrium (Fishman, 2001). These once small, tightly knit rural communities are now dominated by an industrial landscape, fragmented by pipelines, heavy truck traffic, and the influx of out of state workers residing in “man camps. A once diverse economy is quickly moving towards a myopic, singularly focused one of economic urgency. Economic growth within this dominant market driven mode, can lead to environmental and societal degradation (Haque, 1999).

The ecologies and welfare of many people in these oil and gas communities are sacrificed for what is considered to be the greater good; which in this case is wealth accumulation and affordable energy. With limited access to knowledge and an insignificant role in the decision making process involving environmental regulation, disparities between social groups within a community and throughout the geographic region continue to build. In order to reverse these trends that foster and perpetuate inequalities, it is important to consider a variety of equity positions. These include consideration for the needs of today without compromising those of the future, social and environmental justice notions of equitable access to knowledge and protection of human welfare, local policy that considers regional and global impacts, participatory regulatory processes and the belief that the survival of other species is on the equal basis as human species (Haughton, 1999). These positions consider natural systems in a broader context in which both socio-economic systems and their physical, biological environment function as a whole on multiple spatial and temporal scales.

While it is unlikely that socio-economic systems will allow for an equitable distribution of risk associated with oil and gas development, it is important to acknowledge the interdependency of social justice, economic well-being and environmental stewardship for before solutions can be explored. Consideration of the social dimension involving a diverse cultural perspective in addition to scientific knowledge and economic prosperity is essential for reducing the injustices that currently exist in oil and gas development. Participatory planning, implementation of knowledge systems and mitigation of environmental and health hazards provide the beginnings of a normative framework for environmental justice. Therefore the following normative analysis will be considered:

  • Access to a decision making process pertaining to healthy environment. How can local and scientific knowledge be combined in the decision making process?
  • Equal protection from environmental and health hazards. At what point does affordable energy become a public health liability?
  • Access to knowledge about environmental and public health risks. How does the inequality of access to knowledge affect people at risk? What can be done to mitigate this inequality?
  • Protection of social fabric and public safety.   What is the impact on community cohesiveness, sense of place and public safety?
  • Attainment of human welfare. Can communities value long term health and sustainability over short term economic gains?


Unconventional oil and gas development has a long history of top down, federal and state regulatory policy. While state policy in regards to environmental protection varies among jurisdictions, federal policy tends to favor the industry. Although policy to protect underground drinking water supplies has been in place since the 1970’s with the enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act, hydraulic fracturing is not subject to the same standards as other activities regulated under these acts.   In 2005, language via the Energy Policy Act of 2005 made exemptions to the fluids used in the fracturing process essentially eliminating them from the protection under the two acts. The bill also created a loophole, known as the Halliburton Loophole that allowed the industry to suppress the disclosure of chemicals used in their fracturing operations (EPA, 2013).

The horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing process were not the only step along the oil and natural gas production supply chain to receive political preferential treatment. In 1988, the EPA granted a landmark exemption to the oil and gas industry redefining a substance from drilling as “non-hazardous”. If it were not for the loophole, nearly 70% of the waste injected into class 2 wells (oil and gas wells) would be considered toxic (Lustgarden, A. 2012). Once deep well injection was no longer considered hazardous, pressure testing, yearly inspections, and seismic and geologic modeling were no longer required. In addition, the radius of inspection for retired wells with migration potential was reduced from 2 miles to 400 feet (EPA, 1988).

While many of the water quality regulations are mandated at the federal level, other standards in place to mitigate adverse environmental impacts such as water quantity, building setbacks and air quality are left up to multi-state or state jurisdictions. Water quality regulations are mandated by Colorado water law, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is the regulatory body in the state of Colorado for all other oil and gas bylaws. The COGCC has passed the country’s most stringent regulation in regards to air quality emissions and building setbacks. The regulating body now requires companies to install devices that capture 95% of emissions and adequate leak monitoring and 500-foot buffer between new wells and homes and 1000-feet from higher occupancy buildings (COGCC, 2014) They however, are less stringent with water quality regulation, allowing fracking in the floodplain, using unproven methods for soil remediation due to spills and leaks, haven an understaffed well inspection and water sampling program and assume no presumption of liability against operators when pollution is found in a nearby water source (Law Atlas 2014, Denver Post, 2014).

Although the COGCC’s mission is “to foster responsible oil and gas development by balancing drilling with protection of landowners, public health, and the environment,” they have been heavily criticized for failing to enforce their own rules. With the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing fueling community concern, there has been considerable tension between Colorado communities such as; Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins Lafayette, and Longmont who have either passed moratoriums or issued fracking bans. The state has joined the COGCC lawsuits against many of these cities arguing that these voter-adopted city initiatives violate state law.

Boulder County has taken a more proactive approach by adopting an adaptive management plan that provides them local control over oil and gas development within the current state and federal laws. The new regulations are to address land use impacts, while providing protection of air and water quality. Some of these regulations include third party water quality monitoring, truck traffic restrictions and fees and a review process that requires oil and gas companies to engage with the public at each phase of oil and gas development (Boulder County, 2014). Not only do these regulations provide greater protection above the COGCC regulations, but improves the transparency of the oil and gas industry.

As the polarizing oil and gas debate continues, oil executives continue to claim there are no significant environmental risks associated development as real instances of localized air and groundwater pollution have been documented. Leaky wells and pipelines, migration through fractures and faults, spills and illegal discharges have caused environmental degradation throughout oil and gas regions. The town of Dimock, Pa has been especially been hard hit by several transportation related spills of fracturing fluid and wastewater, a gas well explosion, methane migration contaminating drinking water supplies, and a processing site leak that discharged 8000 gallons of fracturing fluid into an adjacent stream and wetlands (Ridlington, 2012). Similar cases have been documented in Wyoming, Colorado, Ohio and Texas.

Recently, companies have been held liable for their negligence. In 2010 criminal charges were filed against XTO Energy Co., a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, for illegally discharging more than 50,000 gallons of toxic wastewater from a gas well in Penn Township, Pennsylvania. The wastewater, which flowed for two months, contained high levels of radioactive material, inorganic compounds, and total dissolved solids (TDS). The site, Marquardt 8537H, was at that time the largest violator receiving 26 violations the year prior (US EPA, 2001, Heinber, 2013). A Texas family was recently awarded $2.95 million in what may be the first verdict involving fracking (most are settled out of court with details guarded by nondisclosure agreements). The family claimed that they were exposed hazardous gases, chemicals and waste that affected their air quality (NPR 2014).

Practical Applications

Starting with a comprehensive understanding of the effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development the connections between land-use, climate, human behavior, and energy can be explored. These relationships in essence form the “wicked problem” that arises from uncertainty about future environmental, economic and social conditions and difference in social values which make it impossible to define an optimal solution (Gunderson, 1999; Shindler and Cramer, 1999).   Consideration of a bottom-up, community value inclusion policy that protects regulating, provisioning and cultural ecosystem services shall serve as a means to address this wicked problem. Science often deals with definable, separable, and findable solutions, however, the social dimension of policy is often ill-defined and relies on political judgment for resolution (Rittel, 1973).   While the inclusion of society in the political process may not in fact tame the wicked problem and has the potential to create secondary problems resulting from societal linkages, it helps to reduce many of the injustices that exist in federal and state regulations and helps to find meaningful solutions to problems that respond to local cultural perspectives.

In order to address the potential of secondary problems, an adaptive management approach to policy that melds local and scientific knowledge will be implemented.   This systematic process involves learning from program outcomes in order to continually improve management policies (Williams, 2007). A multi-agent ecosystem management decision support tool will be used to investigate the impacts on ecosystem services at multiple spatial and temporal scales and how they can increase the ecological and social resilience of a community.

The ecosystem decision support tool is a computer-based model composed of a language system, presentation system, knowledge system and problem-processing system to support decision-making activities (Reynolds 2014). The model will be used interactively in community workshops and made available on-line.   This method is a useful tool for assessing stakeholder preferences and accounting of trade-offs using a multi-criteria decision analysis. While the model is an effective method for the identification of key socio-economic targets and biophysical outputs, additional approaches for cumulative analysis of quantitative ecosystem modeling and qualitative information from social systems need to be further explored.

An education and outreach component will be established in order to build a knowledge system and improve transparency between stakeholders. The program may include numerous methods for informing the public, by connecting them with expert knowledge.   These may include, but are not limited to social media, workshops, publications and the FrackingSENSE series organized by the Center for the American West.   Transparency is an important tool for building public trust, while also serving as a means to learning, understanding and addressing local concerns in policy decisions.