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date: 25 February 2018

A Historical Perspective of Unconventional Oil and Gas Extraction and Public Health

Summary and Keywords

Technological advances in directional well drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled extraction of oil and gas from once unobtainable geological formations. These unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOGE) techniques have positioned the United States as the fastest-growing oil and gas producer in the world. The onset of UOGE as a viable subsurface energy abstraction technology has also led to the rise of public concern about its potential health impacts on workers and communities, both in the United States and other countries where the technology is being developed. Herein we review in the national and global impact of UOGE from a historical perspective of occupational and public health. Also discussed are the sociological interactions between scientific knowledge, social media, and citizen action groups, which have brought wider attention to the potential public health implications of UOGE.

Keywords: hydraulic fracturing, oil and gas extraction, public health, environment, social impacts


Natural gas and oil can accumulate in tight formations thousands of feet below the earth’s surface; such resources are known as unconventional as they were relatively inaccessible prior to the 21st century. Advances in hydraulic fracturing, an unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOGE) technique, and other technologies have fostered access to these once unobtainable resources.1 Wellbores are initially drilled vertically and then turned horizontally into these formations (Figure 1) (EPA, 2016; Osterath, 2015). Millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and sand are then pumped into the wellbore at high pressure. The rock formations are fractured under this pressure, and the released gas or oil can then flow up through the well (EPA, 2016; Osterath, 2015).

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Figure 1. Illustration of hydraulic fracturing. From Osterath (2015).

Hydraulic fracturing was first explored commercially in the late 1940s. In the late 1990s, advances in hydraulic fracturing and other methods, such as horizontal drilling and seismic imaging, made UOGE economically viable. Natural gas and oil shortages in the 1970s prompted the United States government, as well as entrepreneurs in the oil and gas industry, to invest in research and development efforts aimed at extracting vast amounts of oil and natural gas locked in inaccessible shale and tight sand resources, as well as other unconventional resources such as coal seams and tar sands. The focus here is on the recovery of natural gas and oil from tight sands and shale (hereafter referred to as unconventional oil and gas extraction [UOGE]). Over a thirty-year period, innovations in horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, 3-D seismic imaging, and microseismic fracturing mapping (see Table 1 for definitions) ushered in an UOGE boom near the beginning of the 21st century (see Figure 2, Timeline). Although a number of countries have substantial unconventional oil and gas reserves, through 2015, the vast majority of UOGE has occurred in the United States and southern Canada (International Energy Agency, 2016). Factors that have fostered the extraction unconventional resources in the United States and Canada include private ownership of mineral rights, competition among many experienced independent oil and gas operators and supporting contractors, and preexisting gathering and pipeline infrastructure, as well as governmental policies, such as tax credits, incentive pricing, and exemptions from environmental laws (Colborn, Kwiatkowski, Schultz, & Bachran, 2011; Wang & Krupnick, 2013). However, France and Germany have banned the practice or have placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing owing to environmental and public health concerns.

The potential concerns related to UOGE arise from the proximity of these activities to homes and schools and include contamination of groundwater by chemicals and other contaminants; the disposal of wastewater; emissions of hazardous air pollutants, ozone precursors, and diesel particles into the air; usage of vast quantities of clean water; accidents/spills; seismic activity; noise pollution; and heavy traffic of trucks to and from well sites (Adgate, Goldstein, & McKenzie, 2014; Shonkoff, Hays, & Finkel, 2014). Contaminants potentially released into groundwater include toxic chemicals and heavy metals as well as naturally occurring radioactive material. The wastewater produced from UOGE contains the materials identified above, as well as large amounts of salt. This wastewater is difficult to clean and is disposed of by dumping it into pits or injection into deep waste-disposal wells, again leading to concern over polluting the surface water or groundwater.

Given the recent timeframe of significant UOGE production, there have been limited studies on the health effects associated with UOGE-related exposures. Potential health impacts such as cancer or reproductive effects take many years to develop. Health studies frequently require baseline health and exposure measurements, which are often unavailable given the rapid rise of UOGE. The majority of health research has occurred in the United States and has focused on airborne exposures. Reports have been made on short-term health effects such as upper respiratory irritation, headaches, and burning of eyes (Werner, Vink, Watt, & Jagals, 2015). Several studies on birth outcomes have reported impacts related to UOGE, including increases in congenital heart defects (McKenzie et al., 2014), preterm births (Casey et al., 2016), and low birth weight (Stacy et al., 2015), as well as a decrease in Apgar scores—a measure of newborn health (Hill, 2012). Increased hospital utilization rates have also been reported in relation to UOGE activity (Jemielita et al., 2015). There remains a large gap in knowledge about the potential health impacts on communities and citizens from exposures associated with UOGE. An even larger gap exists in knowledge regarding the sociological, community-level, and socioecological outcomes related to UOGE activity (Gullion, 2015; Willow, 2014).

In the United States, the UOGE industry is exempt from a wide range of federal environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act2 (33 U.S.C. 1251—1376, 1977; S.1316, 1996), leaving most regulatory decision to the individual state governments. Each state must decide how, when, and where to regulate UOGE production, including issues such as split estate (see Table 1), where mineral ownership and surface ownership are not held by the same entity; appropriate water usage; public health accommodations; setback regulations (see Table 1); and concerns over mixing residential, commercial, and industrial zoning.

In many states, such as Texas and Colorado, state regulators have struggled with local residents and communities over who has the right to regulate UOGE activity and zones within city limits; does the state or each community have the right to decide where drilling and other UOGE activity takes place? (Gullion, 2015; Davis, 2012; Rahm, 2011). Hundreds of activist groups have mobilized across the United States and other parts of the world, tackling issues such as setback rules and improving regulations related to social, public health, and environmental outcomes of development—as UOGE facilities may be built in close proximity to homes or schools and as urban drilling has become more common in regions such as Texas’s Barnett Shale and Colorado’s Niobrara Shale. The possibility of UOGE activity in western Europe has been accompanied by protests and campaigns by activist groups similar to those seen in the United States (Weile, 2014). Social media has provided important public spaces and opportunities for networking among activists, many of whom feel isolated and uncertain about the risks they face in their homes and communities (Gullion, 2015; Wylie & Albright, 2014).

This chronological review of the rise of UOGE focuses mostly on the North American experience, in parallel to scientific knowledge, social media, and citizen action groups that brought the potential public health implications of UOGE to wider attention both in the United States and international communities.

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Figure 2. The dawn of UOGE boom milestones, 1949 to 2004.

Late 1990s to 2004: The Dawn of the Unconventional Gas and Oil Boom

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Figure 3. Unconventional oil and gas extraction states in late 1990s to 2000.

Emergence of Novel Technology

Between 1996 and 2004, the dawn of the unconventional gas and oil boom was ushered in by major breakthroughs in 3-D and microseismic imaging and hydraulic fracturing, along with the application of horizontal drilling techniques developed in the 1980s (Figure 2). In 1996, 3-D seismic survey equipment was proven to be instrumental in delineating the boundaries of the Jonah Field in the Pinedale Anticline of western Wyoming. Data obtained from the 3-D seismic survey equipment allowed engineers to pinpoint the areas of the natural gas with the highest production potential, significantly increasing natural gas production in the Jonah Field. Improvements in microseismic imaging allowed engineers to also see the height, length, and orientation, and monitoring of other attributes of induced fractures closely followed (Wang & Krupnick, 2013). In 1998, the Mitchell Energy Company made a major breakthrough in hydraulic fracturing known as slickwater fracturing in the Barnett Shale of Northeast Texas, which significantly reduced costs associated with hydraulic fracturing in shales (Martineau, 2007; Wang & Krupnick, 2013). Slickwater fracturing involves the use of water mixed with chemicals to fracture a tight formation, such as shale.

At 70% less cost than gel fracturing, which uses more viscous fluids, slickwater fracturing, improved microseismic imaging, and horizontal drilling (Martineau, 2007) as well as rising demand for natural gas, made it economically feasible to recover natural gas and other petroleum resources from unconventional sources such as shales and tight sands (Bowker, 2003). Capitalizing on these new technologies, United States natural gas production rapidly increased in the Barnett Shale of Texas, the tight sands of the Jonah Field of Wyoming, and Piceance Basin of Colorado (Figure 3). Between 1996 and 2004, the number of producing United States natural gas wells increased from 301,811 to 406,147 (EIA, 2016a), and production of unconventional gas exceeded 1.6 trillion cubic feet (TCF), accounting for over 30% of United States natural gas production (Rogers, 2011). Encouraged by the shale gas boom, oil and gas (O&G) entrepreneurs began employing these techniques in other areas, such as the Marcellus and Fayetteville Shale in the eastern United States and the oil shales of the middle Bakken formation in Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba (Friedman, 2012; King & Durham, 2015). By 2004, the development of UOGE allowed United States production to reach 1.99 billion barrels of crude oil per day (EIA, 2016a).

Public Health Research or Involvement Was Nonexistent to Minimal

During this phase of UOGE, the public health and medical communities had minimal input into the rules, regulations, and policies for UOGE. The public health community had concern about possible contamination to drinking water supplies. In 1997, Alabama’s 11th Circuit Court ruled that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should regulate hydraulic fracturing to prevent methane from entering public water systems. In response, the EPA evaluated existing literature and reported that “injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coalbed methane wells poses little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water and does not justify additional study at this time” (EPA, 2004). Although concern about potential impacts related to environmental and public health were growing in the environmental community and residential communities living in close proximity to production sites (Gullion, 2015; Wilber, 2013), very little academic research is found in the scientific literature. Garfield County, Colorado, however, conducted a risk assessment using the Gaussian plume model, which indicated that benzene emissions during flow back with no gas recovery over a seventy-year period would exceed the EPA’s acceptable limit of exposure for cancer (Coons & Walker, 2008).

Community/Social Media

During this phase of UOGE development, peer-reviewed research had not yet systematically explored community-based and other sociological effects of unconventional development, such as changes in governance and regulations. As a result, the sociological literature provides few accounts of these early years, when UOGE development was in its early stages. While there is little in the literature, there is strong evidence that citizens mobilized community groups even at these early stages of UOGE activity. For example, in 2003 the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance formed along the Western Slope of Colorado and began citizen-led campaigns to control UOGE activity locally, through measures such as municipal ordinances related to industrial zoning. This type of activism continues today (see The San Juan Citizens Alliance has been active since 1985 in controlling and limiting UOGE activity, also in Colorado. Other states, such as Texas (Gullion, 2015) and Pennsylvania (Wilber, 2011), saw the mobilization of important citizen activism well before social scientists were able to capture this empirically.

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Figure 4. Expansion of the U.S. UOGE boom, 2005–2009.

2005 to 2009: Expansion of the U.S. Unconventional Gas and Oil Boom

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Figure 5. Unconventional oil and gas in the United States, 2005–2009.

Industry Expansion

Between 2005 and 2009, the unconventional gas boom spread to other regions of the United States, with rapid expansion in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the Haynesville Shale of Eastern Texas and Northwest Louisiana; the Eagle Ford Shale of southeastern Texas, and the Fayetteville Shale of Arkansas (Figure 4). Between this time, the number of producing United States natural gas wells increased to 493,100, and production of unconventional gas increased to four TCF (15% of total production) (EIA, 2014, 2016a).

Unconventional oil began to boom in the Bakken of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and the Niobrara Shale of northern Colorado (Figure 5). UOGE operators demonstrated that horizontal drilling coupled with large-scale multistage hydraulic fracturing could recover significant oil reserves (Colorado Department of Natural Resources, 2011; Friedman, 2012; Nordeng & Helms, 2010). Estimates of recoverable oil from the Bakken rose from 14 million barrels in 2005 to over 2 billion barrels by 2008 (Nordeng & Helms, 2010). By December 2009, there were 1,332 oil wells producing 164,000 barrels of oil per day in North Dakota (North Dakota Industrial Commission, 2016), and the United States was producing 1.95 billion barrels of crude oil per year (EIA, 2016b).

In 2006, another important innovation known as pad drilling was widely adopted. Pad drilling is the practice of drilling multiple wells at the same surface location. Using pad drilling, an O&G operator can locate four to twenty or more wells on a single pad and realize savings in cost and time. Beginning in 2006, pad drilling was widely implemented in the Barnett Shale of Texas and was subsequently implemented in other shale plays. Prior to 2006, only about 5% of wells in the United States shale plays were on multi-well pads. By the end of 2009, over 30% of wells were on multi-well pads (Thout, 2014).

Federal Decisions Related to Public Health

In 2005, the United States Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2005). This determination was based on an EPA report (EPA, 2004) that found “minimal threat” to drinking water. This study and its determination was based on a review of the existing peer-reviewed literature, not water-monitoring data, and only focused on coalbed drilling. A Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act was introduced in Congress in 2009 (S. 1215, 2009). The proposed FRAC Act of 2009 included hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water Act. It proposed that the industry must make the chemical constituents available to the public and emergency medical personnel. This Act was heavily lobbied against by the UOGE industry and was not passed.

Public concern about the impacts of UOGE activity in Garfield County, Colorado, prompted several human health risk assessments by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and a health consultation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) (ATSDR, 2008; CDPHE, 2010; Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2010). These studies provided a platform for the community residents’ voice and for the health department to collect data related to health risks (Garfield County Department of Public and Environmental Health, 2016). Early air-monitoring studies identified benzene (ATSDR, 2008), formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and trimethylbenzenes (CDPHE, 2010; Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2010) as possible contributors of public health risk from UOGE. These screening-level reports recommended long-term air monitoring, along with a complete list of contaminants associated with UOGE, as well as short-term air monitoring to capture intermittent peak exposures and to examine sources of air toxics, such as industrial or transportation sources (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2010). The ATSDR health consultation concluded that benzene air concentrations in areas of extensive UOGE were significantly higher than in other rural and urban areas and were of potential concern. However, the ATSDR was uncertain as to future benzene exposures and determined that future exposures were an “indeterminate health hazard” (ATSDR, 2008). In 2009, the citizens of Garfield County Colorado successfully petitioned their county commissioners to conduct a health impact assessment for a UOGE project planned for Battlement Mesa (Witter et al., 2010).

Community/Social Media

Though little research was published on social mobilization until after 2010, citizens living near UOGE activity mobilized alongside development well before that time. Community responses centered around people’s concerns over exposure to environmental hazards and related public health risks; proximity of development to residential areas and high-occupancy buildings such as schools; local versus state control over zoning and regulating UOGE activity; and the uneven socioeconomic outcomes of the industry, given the boom–bust nature of O&G economies and the uneven nature of severance and other taxes in various United States (subsequently analyzed in Perry, 2011, 2012) (Gullion, 2015; Wilber, 2012).

Early social scientific research presented mostly descriptive findings, simply in response to the rapid onset of UOGE activity in so many places at once by examining people’s perceptions of its positive and negative outcomes. Although researchers had considered the public’s early responses to energy boomtowns (e.g., (England & Albrecht, 1984; Freudenburg & Gramling, 1992), one concern of UOGE activity was the close proximity of wellpads and infrastructure to homes, neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and other high-occupancy buildings. At this exploratory stage, researchers relied primarily on snapshots of social life to assess early consequences, by using questionnaires or conducting in-depth interviews with community leaders, business developers, and other readily available and identifiable representatives of the public. These early efforts helped social scientists respond quickly to the rapid pace of industry expansion, while also providing quantitative data for policymakers and community leaders.

Initial sociological research found both positive and negative public perceptions of UOGE activity. Anderson and Theodori (2009) interviewed community leaders in two Barnett Shale Texas counties, finding that leaders “readily acknowledge” economic development and the (expected) positive outcomes that accompany it—increases to property values, revenue for the city, new business and jobs, and improvements to other community infrastructure. However, this research foreshadowed developing social and environmental concerns, as leaders in both counties (and particularly the county with longer-term development) also identified multiple negative outcomes related to UOGE activity, including: increased traffic; noise and light pollution; increased water consumption; potential for water pollution; and increased risk of serious environmental or technical accident (Anderson & Theodori, 2009). Survey research in these Texas counties reflected the same outcomes (Anderson & Theodori, 2009); residents in counties with more established UOGE operations reported negative perceptions of social and environmental outcomes from UOGE activity than those in counties with newer operations, which perceived economic benefits as more significant and positive.

At this time, sociologists drew on earlier findings about social outcomes related to conventional oil and gas extraction (Freudenburg, 1981; Freudenburg & Gramling, 1998) and boom–bust cycles. Since the 1970s, rural sociologists have shown how boom–bust communities that depend on extractive industries often face overburdened municipal services, shift in social and cultural patterns, and volatile economic growth (Jacquet, 2009, 2014; Jobes, 1987). Case studies showed how historical and structural components of natural resource dependence (Brown, Swanson, Barton, & Society, 2003) related to problems of persistent poverty (Peluso, Humphrey, & Fortmann, 1994) and overadaptation to extractive economies (Freudenburg, 1992). These studies focused on rural areas, where energy extraction typically occurred and focused on social disruption (Smith & Krannich, 2000); few studies had examined urban UOGE activity to that point, given its rarity at that time.

Even at this intermediary stage, most of the social mobilization that occurred in response to UOGE activity emerged from people’s concerns about exposure to environmental risks, threats to public health, and/or inequitable land use—all issues deeply embedded in environmental justice and procedural equity (Mohai, Pellow, & Roberts, 2009). While UOGE activity was still in its early stages, activists were using the language and tools of the environmental justice movement to mobilize their own community groups fighting unregulated UOGE activity, from concepts of popular epidemiology and citizen science (Brown, 2007) to ideas of procedural equity (Lake, 1996) and local community control over land and environmental resources. Interestingly though, as UOGE activity spread into previously insulated segments of society—middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods in Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania—its impacts brought experiences of environmental injustice to a new segment of the United States population and led to activism in those spaces (Gullion, 2015). Subsequently, sociological researchers developed ample tools to help explain the community and social outcomes related to UOGE activity and its unprecedented use in populated areas with middle-class or wealthy populations (Gullion, 2015; Willow & Wylie, 2014).

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Figure 6. (a) Continued U.S. expansion and international exploration, 2010–2012. (b) Continued U.S. expansion and international exploration, 2013–2015.

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Figure 7. Unconventional oil and gas extraction in the United States, 2010–2015.

UOGE Continues to Expand

Between 2010 and 2015, most unconventional gas and oil development continued to occur within the United States (Figure 7) and to a lesser extent in Canada as improvements in hydraulic fracturing, such as multistage fracturing, increased yields, and more than 58% of wells into unconventional resources were pad drilled (multi-wells on one well pad). By 2015, there were 514,786 producing gas wells in the United States, and unconventional gas production reached 13.7 TCF, accounting for 43% of all United States natural gas production (EIA, 2014). Fifty-one percent (300,000 wells, 4.3 million barrels/day) of United States oil production was from unconventional resources compared to 2% in 2000 (EIA, 2016a). The Bakken, Eagle Ford, Haynesville, Marcellus, Niobrara, Permian, and Utica regions accounted for 95% of United States oil production growth and all natural gas production growth between 2011 and 2013. More than half the wells in these regions produced both natural gas and oil (EIA, 2015).

Worldwide proved and unproved recoverable unconventional oil and gas resources were estimated to be 419 billion barrels of oil and 7,576 TCG shale gas within forty-six countries, including the United States. While countries other than the United States and Canada have invested in exploration of unconventional gas and oil, only China and Argentina were producing oil and gas from shale resources at a commercial scale by 2015 (EIA, 2015).

While China’s shale gas industry has vast potential with an estimated 1,115 TCF in recoverable natural gas reserves, development of the resource has been slow. Between 2013 and 2014, natural gas production from China’s unconventional resources reached 0.046 TCF/year. Challenges in developing China’s unconventional resources include lack of water and lower than expected production rates (EIA, 2015).

The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that Argentina held the world’s second largest recoverable shale gas reserves and the fourth largest shale oil reserves, with 802 TCF of shale gas and 27 billion barrels of shale oil. In 2014, the Argentinian government began attracting large foreign investments in unconventional plays through policy reforms, tax incentives, and tariffs. While development was in the early stages, with 45,000 barrels of shale oil per day by mid-2015, Argentina was predicted to be the next frontier in the shale revolution as foreign investment improves infrastructure (EIA, 2013; Sharp, 2015).

The EIA estimated that Canada had 573 TCF of recoverable unconventional gas resources in five western basins: the Horn River, Cordova Embayment, Liard, Deep Basins, and the Colorado Group, as well as unconventional oil in the Bakken. However, Canada’s shale resources were not currently developed as extensively as those in the United States (EIA, 2013).

Several other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa hoped to join the shale gas and oil revolution and were investing in exploration of their shale resources (EIA, 2013).

In 2011, at an exploration shale gas UOGE site in the north of England, two seismic events occurred shortly after the wells were hydraulically fractured. These events aroused considerable public concern and media comment about these events, which generally raised the public profile of these activities (White et al., 2015). The U.K. government was generally supportive of UOGE, but the activity differs regionally throughout the country with exploratory work continuing in England and moratoria in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland (White, Fell, & Smith, 2015). In the United Kingdom, the use of hydraulic fracturing for oil is not controversial, and over the last thirty years more than 2,000 wells have been drilled onshore, of which around 10% were hydraulically fractured to enhance the recovery of the oil (RS & RAE, 2012); however, hydraulic fracturing for gas is a controversial topic in the United Kingdom (Moore et al., 2014). Early in 2010, the French government issued sixty-four shale gas research and exploration permits, and although the government did not see this action as contentious, it caused widespread public protest and a petition to parliament (Weile, 2014). In 2011, France banned exploration and exploitation of liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons through hydraulic fracturing. In Germany, hydraulic fracturing of tight gas deposits has been in use since the early 1960s: 300 times in more than 150 wells (European Commission, 2016). However, hydraulic fracturing is still a controversial topic in the country, and hydraulic fracturing of shale gas reserves has been limited to date, with the consensus view that hydraulic fracturing of shale gas should not be undertaken until an agreement is reached on a proper regulatory framework. In 2011, ExxonMobil undertook a stakeholder dialogue to try to change attitudes in Germany, and this process concluded that a slow and cautious development of hydraulic fracturing should be possible in unconventional reservoirs with undue risks (Ewen, Borchardt, Richter, & Hammerbacher, 2012). In February 2013, the government announced draft regulations that would permit exploitation of shale gas deposits in parts of Germany under the supervision of an expert panel, but to date this legislation has not been enacted.

By 2009, United States shale gas production had outpaced natural gas demand, which resulted in a substantial price decline in natural gas that continued through 2015. By 2015, amid the oil bust and depressed natural gas prices, the future of the shale revolution was uncertain. In response to declining gas prices, United States O&G operators shifted their resources to the oil shales and recovering condensate (liquids) from “wet” shale gases. Beginning in June 2014, oil prices began a steep descent; the price of oil fell by more than 70% by March of 2016, leading to a decommissioning of rigs, sharp cuts in exploration and production investments, and cooling of international interest in shale development (Krauss, 2016).

Table 1. UOGE terms and definitions




A low-density liquid hydrocarbon mixture that generally occurs in association with natural gas1

Directional Drilling

The intentional deviation of a wellbore from the path it would naturally take. Directional drilling is common in shale reservoirs because it allows drillers to place the borehole in contact with the most productive area of the reservoir1

Dry Gas

Natural gas that occurs with more methane and less condensate or natural gas that has had condensate removed1

Horizontal Drilling

A subset of the more general term “directional drilling,” used where the departure of the wellbore from vertical exceeds about 80 degrees1

Hydraulic fracturing

Also known as “fracing” or “fracking”: A method of improving the permeability of an oil or gas reservoir by pumping fluids such as water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or propane into the reservoir at high pressure to crack or fracture the rock. This creates pathways by which the natural gas or oil can flow to the wellbore.2

Massive hydraulic fracturing

Large-scale hydraulic fracturing

Microseismic fracturing mapping

Methods by which fracturing of the reservoir can be observed by geophysical techniques to determine where the fractures occurred within a reservoir.2

Mineral rights

The right to access and control the minerals in the subsurface of a property. Commonly refers to natural gas and oil.3

Multi-staged hydraulic fracturing

The process of undertaking multiple fracture stimulations in the reservoir section where parts of the reservoir are isolated and fractured separately.2

Pad drilling

The practice of drilling multiple wells at the same surface location pads.4


The rock that contains oil or natural gas.2


A distance from a curb, property line, or structure within which building is prohibited.6

Shale gas

Natural gas produced from shale formations1

Shale oil

Oil produced from shale formations

SlickWater Fracturinging

A hydraulic fracturing technique that uses large volumes of water and a small amount of sand and specialized chemicals.1

Split Estate

A situation where surface landowners do not own mineral rights (e.g., they do not own the O&G resources) beneath the surface of their property.5

3-D seismic imaging

A tool that bounces sound waves off underground rock structures to reveal possible oil and natural gas-bearing formations.2

Wet Gas

Natural gas that contains less methane (typically less than 85% methane) and more ethane and other complex hydrocarbons.1

Notes: (1) Schlumberger (2016);

(2) Candadian Society for Unconventional Natural Gas (Chevron, 2015);

(3) SFGate;

(4) Thout (2014);

(5) Davis (2012); and

(6) The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

Environmental Public Health Research Comes to Life

Between 2010 and 2015, the public health community was playing “catch-up” to the growing public concern about the impact of UOGE on communities and individuals. In 2010, the ATSDR performed a health consultation for Pavilion, Wyoming, located in an area of extensive UOGE. People in Pavilion had complained of contaminated drinking water and odors. Upon investigation, the ATSDR concluded that drinking sources in Pavilion, Wyoming, had been contaminated with total petroleum hydrocarbons, metals, and salts at levels of concern for human health. As a result, it recommended alternative drinking water sources and further investigation of the source and extent of the contamination. In a second health consultation in Garfield County, Colorado, the ATSDR and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2010) concluded that there was not enough information to determine whether or not air contaminants from UOGE posed a risk to people’s health, and so they recommended further and more extensive monitoring (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2010). In 2011, researchers from the University of Colorado concluded a Health Impact Assessment for a proposed UOGE project in Garfield County, Colorado. They identified several environmental, psychological, and social stressors that could influence community and individual health, including, water, soil and air quality, traffic, noise/vibration/light, community wellness, economic/employment changes, health infrastructure stress, and industrial accidents/malfunction (Witter et al., 2010). Their supporting human health risk assessment found that air contaminants from the UOGE project had the potential to increase subchronic respiratory, neurological, and hematological health effects, as well as one in a 100,000 excess lifetime cancer risk for people living nearest to UOGE wells (McKenzie, Witter, Newman, & Adgate, 2012). Benzene, alkanes, trimethylbenzenes, and xylenes were identified as the possible leading contributors to these risk estimates (McKenzie et al., 2012). However, the Garfield County risk assessment and a later risk assessment in the Barnett Shale of Texas found low potential for increased health risks from air exposures for people not living near the UOGE sites (Bunch et al., 2014; McKenzie et al., 2012). In the meantime, Colborn and her colleagues compiled a list 632 chemicals used during UOGE and identified the potential health effects from 353 of these chemicals if exposure were to occur (Colborn et al., 2011). Exposure to the majority of the chemicals (75%) could affect the skin, eyes and other sensory organs, as well as the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Scientists (Colborn et al., 2011; McKenzie et al., 2012; Witter et al., 2010) stressed the importance of full disclosure of the contents of hydraulic fracturing fluids, extensive environmental monitoring, coordinated environmental public health research, and increased regulation of UOGE.

Other early health studies involved surveys and self-reported health effects in UOGE regions. To allow the environmental health research agenda to be informed by those experiencing UOGE, a “community information needs assessment” of community leaders was conducted by a team of scientists from three states, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio, from 2012 to 2013 (Korfmacher, Elam, Gray, Haynes, & Hughes, 2014). Community leaders identified five causes of greatest health concern: water quality, air quality, quality of life, stress on public health systems, and potential health impacts on vulnerable populations (Korfmacher et al., 2014). In Ohio, public health leaders expressed additional concerns regarding increased truck traffic on rural roads, and earthquakes (Korfmacher et al., 2014).

Several recent epidemiological studies have indicated associations between the density of oil and gas wells around homes and health outcomes. An ecological study comparing the standardized incidence rates of childhood cancer in Pennsylvania counties with and without hydraulic fracturing found no difference in childhood cancer rates for all cancer types except central nervous system cancers (Fryzek, Pastula, Jiang, & Garabrant, 2013). However, the results from this study are questionable because the time periods studied do not account for appropriate lag times for cancer development or consider important confounders (Goldstein & Malone, 2013). In addition, the ecological design did not allow for the consideration of individual exposures and outcomes. Jemielita and colleagues examined the association between UOGE wells and health care utilization in Pennsylvania (Jemielita et al., 2015). This team of scientists found significantly higher cardiology and neurology inpatient prevalence rates in zip codes with higher UOGE well density (wells per km2) (Jemielita et al., 2015).

A retrospective cohort study of 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado found that the prevalence of congenital heart defects increased with increasing density of oil and gas wells around the mother’s home after accounting for the elevation of the residence, infant gender and parity, as well as the mother’s age, ethnicity, educational level, and smoking and drinking habits. The Colorado study also observed a possible increased risk for neural tube defects in the densest areas of oil and gas wells, but it did not observe any associations for oral clefts, low full-term birth weight, or preterm births (McKenzie et al., 2014). A retrospective cohort study of 15,451 births between 2007 and 2010 in the Marcellus Shale of southwestern Pennsylvania found slight decreases in fetal growth (as measured by small for gestational age and birth weight) with increasing density of oil and gas wells and no association with prematurity after accounting for infant gestational age, parity, and gender, as well as the mother’s age, race, educational level, smoking habits, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) support (Stacy et al., 2015). A smaller retrospective cohort study of 10,946 births between 2009 and 2013 in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania found the risk of preterm birth increased with increasing density of oil and gas wells, but no association with APGAR score or fetal growth after accounting for season and year of birth, infant parity and gender, mother’s age, race, smoking status, prepregnancy body mass index (BMI), antibiotic use, receipt of medical assistance, distance to major road, community socioeconomic deprivation, and residential greenness (Casey et al., 2016). The differences in study findings may be due to differences in study design and regional differences in oil and gas basins. To date, the epidemiological studies have been limited in spatial and temporal resolution in the exposure assessment, as well as the ability to evaluate potential confounders, such as socioeconomic factors and other sources of air pollution. The scientific researchers have cautioned as to the preliminary nature of their findings and have called for further research to better characterize the exposures (Casey et al., 2016; McKenzie et al., 2014; Stacy et al., 2015).

Because of public pressure and a call from the United States House of Representatives Appropriations Conference Committee, the United States EPA announced in March 2010 that it would conduct a comprehensive study to evaluate the potential adverse effects of hydraulic fracturing on water quality and public health. In 2015, the EPA released its draft assessment (, which examined the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources and factors that may influence those impacts. Unfortunately, limited pre- and post-UOGE data on the quality of drinking water resources narrowed the conclusions of the study (EPA, 2015).

Another important environmental public health issue related to UOGE is flow back water, the slurry of chemicals and water that returns to the surface following hydrofracturing. The flow back water contains a complex chemical mixture used for the fracturing and also naturally occurring toxicants that were originally underground: metals, volatile organics, and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs; Warner et al., 2012). Wastewater surface spills in Colorado were found to have levels of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene that exceeded EPA maximum contamination limits (Gross et al., 2013). These extraction waste fluids contain toxins that may result in reproductive or developmental toxic exposures if found in drinking water (Elliott, Ettinger, Leaderer, Bracken, & Deziel, 2016). A team of international scientists identified high levels of barium and strontium, along with high sodium and calcium, in flow back water (Yao et al., 2015). They then examined the toxicity and potential carcinogenic effects of these flow back waters on human bronchial epithelial cells and laboratory mice. Cells treated with flow back water were injected into six mice, five of which developed tumors within three months (Yao et al., 2015). The authors attributed tumor development to barium and strontium, which are found in Marcellus Shale (Yao et al., 2015). Kassotis and colleagues tested surface and groundwater samples from a UOGE-dense region within Garfield County, Colorado, for endocrine disrupting chemicals (Kassotis, Tillitt, Davis, Hormann, & Nagel, 2014). These scientists found significantly higher levels of these chemicals in water samples collected near sites with known natural gas drilling incidents, such as spills, than water samples collected from locations that had few or no UOGE sites (Kassotis et al., 2014). Prenatal exposure to twenty-three commonly used UOGE endocrine-disrupting chemicals were found to activate or inhibit normal endocrine function in male mice (Kassotis et al., 2015).

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, the two relevant national academies, published a joint report in 2012 (RS & RAE, 2012). The work provided an independent scientific review of the evidence on the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing to help inform government policy on shale gas extraction. The report provided ten recommendations to help ensure safe use of the technology, which included systems to detect groundwater contamination, ensure well integrity, mitigate well seismicity, detect gas leaks, and proactively manage water and environmental risks. In addition, the European Union has commissioned several research studies to investigate the potential risks from unconventional extraction of shale gas (European Commission, 2014b), and in 2014 it made recommendations to member states on minimum principles for the exploration and production of hydrocarbons such as shale gas using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (European Commission, 2014a). These recommendations covered issues around permitting, requirements for undertaking an environmental impact assessment, baseline assessment of water and air quality, and other environmental aspects, ensuring appropriate plans are in place for water management, transport, air emissions, seismicity, and other operational conditions, and that there is ongoing environmental monitoring. In 2016, the European Commission published an assessment of the use of these recommendations by member states (European Commission, 2016). Although there was no commercial high-volume hydraulic fracking in the European Union, in three countries—Germany, Poland, and the United Kingdom—exploratory work had taken place at a limited number of sites; in two countries strategic environmental assessments had been carried out for shale gas developments; and in six other countries some limited preparatory developments had occurred. The review showed that the Commission’s recommendations were not fully implemented in any country.

The United States FRAC Act that was first proposed in 2009 reemerged and was reintroduced to Congress in 2011, 2012, and 2015. The 2015 version of the proposed Act proposed that oil and gas industries be required to provide the state authorities with a list of chemicals and proppants used for fracturing and the amount used following fracturing. In addition, the Act proposed that first responders or health care practitioners could receive the chemical identity of “trade-secret” chemicals used in fracturing when necessary for medical diagnosis, treatment, or emergency response. Public disclosure of this information is not included in the 2015 version of the Act, and underground injection of waste products generated from hydraulic fracturing is specifically excluded from this Act (S.785, 2015). The increased citizen concerns around the issues are reflected in the numerous moratoriums and state-funded studies (Figure 6, green flags).

Social Media and Community

By 2010, rapidly expanding UOGE activity had become a reality in many United States communities, though state regulators, municipalities, and citizens had comparatively little time to respond or develop strategies for development (Bacon, 2008). Gasland (Fox, 2010) made “hydraulic fracking” a household buzz word. Citizen-led blogs, such as and, and coordinated social media responses began during this period. At the core of public interest and concern were issues of public and community health, and environmental justice issues such as procedural justice and land use conventions and rights, particularly regarding whether communities should be able to determine zoning and regulations over UOGE activity in their jurisdictions.

Social science research on outcomes and impacts related to UOGE activity increased rapidly during this time. Early research built directly on previous, survey-based analyses, reviewed earlier. Assessments of the qualitative components of these community surveys showed that while the public perceived strong economic benefits related to UOGE activity, they were concerned about mineral rights holders accruing most of those economic benefits (Wynveen, 2011). They also expressed concerns over environmental risks and changes to their daily quality of life, such as increased noise and light pollution impacting sleep patterns. In the United Kingdom, similar ambivalence emerged in the public response, along pro- and antihydraulic fracturing lines (Bomberg, 2015).

In a comparative study of public/leader perceptions in Pennsylvania and New York’s Marcellus Shale region, Brasier et al. (2011) found that the public’s perceptions of UOGE activity relates directly to the maturity of the industry in their community and their familiarity with extractive activities. In more rural areas and in places where development was newer, rapid UOGE development was generally perceived as more disruptive, but still with strongly positive and negative consequences. Economic development and growth were most frequently mentioned as positive outcomes, but respondents also expressed concern over environmental risks related to UOGE, shifts in daily life, and potential for uneven economic outcomes over time.

In 2015, the European Commission carried out a survey to assess the attitudes of citizens in regions where shale gas developments were permitted or planned (TNS Political & Social, 2015). In eight of the twelve European regions studied, at least half of those responding had heard of local shale gas projects. However, of those who knew about the projects, less than half felt they knew enough to understand the associated risks and benefits, and people were divided about whether they could effectively express their views about these developments. Opinions on whether shale gas projects raise new challenges for individuals or society varied greatly between regions, with the citizens in Poland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom showing the greatest concern, and those in France and Spain the least concern. The biggest concerns were related to air and water pollution and the least to seismic events, traffic hazards, and a drop in residential property values. Opinions about whether the European Union should ban hydraulic fracking differed by country: ranging from 6% in Poland to 44% in Spain (TNS Political & Social, 2015).

Descriptive research such as this continues to the present day, with researchers categorizing and analyzing public perceptions about UOGE. These studies typically focus on national-level public opinion data and analyze the positive and negative perceptions that people associate with UOGE activity, particularly at the hydraulic fracturing stage (Boudet et al., 2014; Ceresola & Crowe, 2015; Clarke et al., 2015; Crowe, Silva, Ceresola, Buday, & Leonard, 2015; Jacquet, 2012; Ladd, 2013; Wheeler et al., 2014, 2015). These researchers are just beginning to incorporate more nuanced perceptions, such as industry behavior, into their survey questions (e.g., see Boudet, Bugden, Zanocco, & Maibach, 2016).

With this foundational knowledge collected, theoretical concerns and more longitudinal empirical outcomes have become more prominent. These studies began to shift their units of analysis and refocused researchers on the experiences of activists and other community members. People’s perceptions of risk and risks faced by communities became more robust foci (Brasier et al., 2013; Jacquet & Stedman, 2014; Small et al., 2014). Though research was scattered across disciplines, social scientists began to observe signs of psychosocial stress (Jacquet & Stedman, 2013). Further, scholars began to question how effective the previous boomtown model was for UOGE activity, given important deviations from that typical pattern observed during this O&G boom (Jacquet & Kay, 2014; Stedman et al., 2012) and additional acute concerns, such as water consumption and contamination (Merrill, 2012).

As UOGE activity has become more established, social scientists have begun analyzing regulatory differences across states. Differences in regulatory approach have created varied social, economic, and environmental outcomes and have typically used a neoliberalized approach to energy development (Malin, 2014), where regulations are minimized and enforcement is typically limited and underfunded. Early regulatory research suggested that the checkerboard pattern of regulations across states creates and interacts with a wide spectrum of public perceptions over UOGE activity and related risks, and can lead to widely ranging, perhaps even fragmented, regulatory outcomes (Davis & Hoffer, 2012). Comparative research has examined differences and similarities in states with high rates of UOGE activity, showing how states such as Colorado may offer more stringent protections against risks related to UOGE activity than do states such as Texas (Davis, 2012). These early analyses can be useful for other nations considering their own foray into UOGE activity or for communities/states looking to form regional regulatory coalitions (Rabe, 2014), given the complexity of public response, industry activity, and government capacity to enforce regulations (Rahm, 2011). Recently, research has ramped up on this topic and has more actively explored public and activist perceptions related to regulatory enforcement, now that communities have been living with UOGE activity for a longer period of time (Arnold & Holahan, 2014; Elgin & Weible, 2013; Fisk, 2013; Heikkila, Pierce et al., 2014; Heikkila, Weible, & Pierce, 2014; Weible, Heikkila, & Carter, 2016).

While research on general public perceptions, regulations, and risk has generated important knowledge about socioenvironmental outcomes of UOGE activity, in-depth accounts of community-level experiences have just started emerging—and more of this research is necessary. The newest round of inquiries responded directly to the lack of qualitative research on citizens’ responses and experiences (Ladd, 2014), especially in relation to issues like environmental justice, shifts in daily life and worldview as a result of development, and environmental health (Willow & Wylie, 2014). Ethnographic research has allowed more in-depth, community-based, and multifaceted observations about the complex linkages between the UOGE industry and the communities hosting its infrastructure and workers. Utilizing participant observation and other qualitative methods, researchers could observe the quality of life and stress-related outcomes of living in the oil and gas patch. For example, in her ethnographic work in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas patch, Perry explored how family farms were impacted by UOGE activity on and near their land (Perry, 2011) and found evidence of collective trauma among residents living near UOGE facilities in Bradford County, Pennsylvania (Perry, 2012).

These studies continue to observe and analyze more structural patterns in the impacts of UOGE activity on communities, identifying ways in which “the structural disempowerment that accompanies fracking is not an isolated local phenomenon, but is instead shared by residents of distant places who possess diverse cultural backgrounds and different personal traits” (Willow & Wylie, 2014). In other words, much social scientific research now focuses on establishing patterns across communities related to public and environmental health, social mobilization, risk perceptions over time, and the long-term impacts of economic booms and busts.

The community-based and ethnographic literature on UOGE activity and its impacts grows continually, but a few highlights represent general trends toward more critical and environmental justice-based research. Malin (2014) has shown how neoliberal hegemony, particularly the normalized practice in the United States of privileging self-regulating markets, encouraged Pennsylvania farmers to say “yes” as they decided to sign UOGE leases and even as they fought to have those lease terms met. Willow (2014) compares and contrasts unexpected parallels between activism among Ohio antifracking activists and indigenous peoples experiencing deforestation following mercury poisoning of their water. She observes important ways that environmental injustices and exposures to risks and toxins are becoming increasingly common, impacting wealthier neighborhoods instead of the poor and marginalized populations who are more accustomed to living in sacrifice zones (Lerner, 2010). Simonelli (2014) interrogated New York state residents and recorded their responses to UOGE activity, using an environmental justice lens to show how conflict and tensions can emerge within communities, as residents struggle with their stances on UOGE activity. Hudgins and Poole (2014) analyzed the impacts of neoliberal policymaking, and de- and re-regulation on governance and citizen involvement in Pennsylvania, issues just beginning to be explored in fledgling UOGE economies such as Australia (Mercer, de Rijke, & Dressler, 2014).

Environmental justice, especially procedural justice outcomes, are becoming more central concerns in this literature. Malin and deMaster (2016) examined the outcomes of UOGE activity and lease-signing for small- and medium-sized farming operations in rural Pennsylvania. These farmers often owned their mineral rights and had UOGE leases on their land, but their experiences were far from positive. Instead, these modest operations were caught between dependence on unstable agricultural commodities markets on one hand and equally unstable UOGE markets and activities on the other. This compromised both their livelihoods and their agency in protecting their land and families from environmental risks and uncertainties associated with UOGE activity. Gullion (2015) has also provided one of the richest and most community-based accounts of social mobilization related to UOGE activity. Gullion focuses on communities in the Barnett Shale, specifically around Denton, Texas, and explores the mobilization of upper-middle-class, white, and politically conservative antifracking activists. Couched in the environmental justice literature, Gullion shows (much like Willow, 2014) just how unusual patterns of exposure are in relation to UOGE development.

As noted earlier, social media has played a vital role in connecting activists within and between communities (Gullion, 2015). Very little research has systematically explored how and why social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are utilized, however. Wylie and Albright (2014) present one rare gem, which provides insight into Wylie’s impressive database and social media tool called WellWatch. This online platform had three components that empowered citizens to organize and share data, including faulty or leaking UOGE infrastructure (including options to upload photos and enter longitude/latitude data), “report cards” on landmen they had dealt with, and a third platform that empowered users to upload and tag news stories. These tools were intended to empower and network citizens across United States communities as they contended with similar experiences related to structural disempowerment. This site was attacked incessantly and eventually was permanently compromised as a result of spam attacks in 2013. However, much more needs to be learned about the use of social media and their seeming effectiveness in linking together and thereby empowering activists in different communities.

Summary and Looking Forward

UOGE has rapidly expanded, with minimal input or control exerted over the process by the environmental and public health researchers and the local/regional residential community. The public health community is now making progress exploring the potential public health impacts resulting from the industry, yet further research is still needed. It is strongly recommended that (1) public health research be conducted in concert with academic institutions, community representatives, and public health officials at the local and regional level, (2) industry should be willing to support these research agendas in good faith to stimulate an improved work environment for the UOGE workers and the community residents who are neighbors of the industry, (3) as proximal neighbors of the industry, community residents should be involved in research initiatives and empowered to monitor their local environment, including drinking and surface water quality and air quality, (4) local and public health officials should be equipped with as much data and information as possible to influence sound decisions regarding citing and operating new facilities, and (5) direct communication mechanisms should be put in place between the community, public health officials, regulators, and the industry to safeguard public health.


The authors would like to thank Aubrey Miller, MD, for his consultation and Tim Hilbert, MS, and Kaitlin Vollet for their assistance in proofreading and formatting.


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(1.) We refer to these resources as unconventional for a few reasons including: shale oil and gas deposits are accessed using less conventional combinations of vertical and directional drilling. Further, deregulation via the 2005 Energy Policy Act has allowed production to occur unconventionally close to residential areas.

(2.) These are U.S. federal environmental laws, under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency, which enacted nationwide protections over the safety and ecological health of various bodies of water and elements of U.S. water infrastructure.