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Sustainability of Shale Gas Development-Refining the Risk Assessment Process to better understand the Net Environmental Impacts on Groundwater...

Sustainability of Shale Gas Development-Refining the Risk Assessment Process to better understand the Net Environmental Impacts on Groundwater Resources


Outline, including interdisciplinary dimension

The exploration of Shale Gas resources poses significant challenges in ensuring that any extraction processes are based on the sound cross-discipline understanding of the geological systems exploited. Public perception of shale gas development tends to be polarised and the rapid expansion of the technology poses challenges to national regulatory frameworks and environmental oversight regimes.  Fugitive methane emissions as well as harmful additives associated with hydraulic fracturing and geochemical compounds mobilised by the extraction process pose a potential threat to groundwater resources, surface waters and associated ecosystems.  Our research activities to date in this area have focussed on combining interdisciplinary expertise in the areas of structural geology & reservoir engineering, hydrogeology, geochemistry and contaminant fate & transport processes to develop numerical modelling approaches as an evidence-based risk assessment tool in the context of Shale Gas extraction.  These research activities are based on close collaborations with leading international partners in Ireland, the US, South Africa and China as well as the geolgical surveys and environmental agencies across the UK and the Island of Ireland. In this context, the proposed research project will focus on further developing and validating numerical modelling tools for the risk assessment of proposed shale gas extraction scenarios on water resources, investigating key international shale gas resources such as in the UK, the US and South Africa as case studies. Only such robust and transparent risk assessment approaches provide the necessary confidence for stakeholder consensus in support of strategic energy policies which are transferable between jurisdictions and aligned in its approach with key legislative frameworks.

Key words/descriptors

energy and environment, shale gas, risk assessment, geochemistry, numerical modelling

First supervisor

Dr Ulrich Ofterdinger - School of Natural and Built Environment

Secondary supervisor from a complementary discipline

Dr Jennifer McKinley - School of Natural and Built Environment

Professor Maarten De Wit - Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth (SA)

Supervisors’ track record of PhD completions, plus excellence and international standing in the project area

The QUB supervisors have a long-standing track record in successfully supervising PhD students to completion, both individually as well as with regard to jointly supervised PhD students.  PhD students supervised have published their research findings in internationally leading peer-reviewed journals, presented their work at international conferences and received merits and awards for the quality of their respective contributions to conferences and other events. 

Building on a successful track record of securing external research funding in support of interdisciplinary research activities across related research areas, we recently completed and published the first numerical modelling study focussing on the risk assessment of the proposed shale gas extraction in the key UK shale gas reservoir in Lancashire, which has attracted wider media coverage over the past year (e.g. in ‘The Carbon Brief’, July 2014 and in ‘New Scientist’, February 2015).  In expanding and internationalising these research activities, we have developed close collaborations with international research partners leading research activities into the nature of potential environmental impacts of shale gas extraction in the US and South Africa.  In addition to presenting and publishing our research findings in leading international journals and at international conferences, we have convened a Conference related to this research area in June 2016 at QUB in collaboration with the Geological Society of London, the International Association of Hydrogeologists as well as the Geological Surveys across the UK & Ireland. 

Intersectoral exposure and/or international mobility

(e.g. secondments to/collaboration with partner organizations)

The project will build on the established international research links with Duke University (US) as well as Nelson Mandela University (SA) and the geological surveys across the UK & Ireland providing cross-discipline expertise as well as with environmental agencies in the UK and Ireland providing insights into the policy drivers and legislative framework for the risk assessment process.  The research project will capitalise on these existing links and include secondments to key partner institutions and reciprocal research visits. In doing so, the project will link to existing respective major research programmes at these partner institutions, such as the Karoo Shale Gas Baseline Research Program in South Africa. The project will furthermore benefit from established links to regional NGOs and community stakeholder groups across the UK & Ireland in the areas of environmental protection and shale gas resources.

Describe briefly the international profile of the partner

Prof. Avner Vengosh, Duke University - Professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment

Prof. Maarten De Wit,  Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University – Prof. De Wit is Science Director of the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) and Chair of Earth Stewardship Science (NMU).

Training that will be provided through the research project itself

In collaborating with cross-discipline research partners at QUB as well as internationally, the project will provide a range of training opportunities across the areas of: geochemical baseline assessment of tracer compounds associated with shale gas extraction; structural geology & reservoir engineering of shale gas resources; quantitative environmental impact assessments; spatial analysis, numerical groundwater flow and contaminant transport modelling              .

Examples of additional training in non-research transferable skills

Through the established links with regional NGOs and community stakeholder groups, the project will provide training opportunities with regard to public and stakeholder engagement.  The collaboration with partnering regulatory agencies will provide training with regard to environmental governance and policy development.

Expected dissemination of results: peer-reviewed journals, seminars, workshop and conferences at European/international level

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Project outcomes will be disseminated through presentations at international (EU & overseas) and national conferences as well as through publications in peer-reviewed journals.  Regional workshops with technical and non-technical stakeholders will be held in collaboration with international partners to disseminate key project findings and to contribute to the wider regional discourse in relation to proposed shale gas development.

Expected impact activities

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

The project will showcase QUB research excellence and provide wider impact through a number of activities.  Through the established links with regional NGOs and stakeholder groups across the UK & Ireland, the project will arrange for regional workshops and public talks to disseminate research findings.  Internationally, such non-technical stakeholder dissemination will be supported by the project partners.  The project’s collaboration with regulatory agencies will provide for direct policy impact of project findings.  The project will provide a basis for a cross-faculty impact showcase, both in terms of promoting PGT/PGR student recruitment as well as in terms of future REF returns.