Addressing the "unconventional" through science & technology

The global demand for efficient and reliable energy continues to increase as many nations try to identify an appropriate mix of energy sources to meet the daily needs of their populations and to contribute toward long-term security and economic growth. 

A number of interdependent factors including the availability of the energy source, its technologic feasibility and reliability, its economic viability, its environmental impacts, and its social acceptance may be weighed in making energy choices at the level of a nation, a region, or a state. 

Importantly, how these various factors are weighted to make those choices may vary from place to place—a country or region experiencing energy poverty may value these factors differently compared to, for example, a country or region that has abundant energy resources and well-developed infrastructure.

In the United States, fossil fuels have been a significant source of energy for both transportation and electricity supply for the past century due, in part, to their natural geologic abundance in the country.  Petroleum and natural gas have been the primary sources for fuel consumption in the transportation sector.  Although coal remains the predominant energy source consumed for electricity generation, coal’s contribution to overall energy consumption in the United States over the past two decades has declined while consumption of natural gas in the electric power sector has increased.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration stated in its Annual Energy Outlook for 2015 that, “Net U.S. imports of energy declined from 30% of total energy consumption in 2005 to 13% in 2013, as a result of strong growth in domestic oil and dry natural gas production from tight formations and slow growth of total energy consumption.”

This growth in domestic oil and dry natural gas production from tight geologic formations has been achieved through technology advances for which George P. Mitchell was at the forefront.  The technology has involved improvements upon the previously established process of hydraulic fracturing combined with the ability to drill horizontally at great distances and depths from the site of the main well head. 

This combination of techniques has allowed production from certain types of oil- and gas-bearing formations that were previously uneconomic to develop and opened the possibility for new hydrocarbon production in many parts of the country.  Some of these areas already had long experience in oil and gas exploration and production and some areas had not seen this kind or extent of development previously.

Favorable markets and the promise of increasing energy security have driven the rapid development of these stores of “unconventional” hydrocarbon resources such as shale gas and shale oil. “Unconventional” was adopted as a general term to describe oil and gas (hydrocarbon) resources that required new or advanced technologies to develop.  

Shale is a ‘tight’ geologic formation that typically has very small pores that are very poorly connected; hydrocarbons may exist in these pore spaces but cannot normally flow through the formation toward a well bore because of this lack of connectivity.  Hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling establishes new pathways along which the hydrocarbons can flow to the well bore for extraction. 

However, as development of these tight geologic resources has expanded in many parts of the country, so has the discussion over the potential advantages and disadvantages of developing and using these resources.  

Proponents of unconventional hydrocarbon development emphasize issues such as greater energy security, positive economic development, job creation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas relative to other fossil fuels, and the ability to avoid negative environmental impacts through well-established engineering techniques.

Opponents of unconventional hydrocarbon development identify issues such as contaminated groundwater supplies and other negative environmental impacts, high demand for surface and/or groundwater in areas experiencing water stress, decrease in quality of life and public health, community disruption, induced seismicity, greater contributions to greenhouse gas emissions due to leakage of natural gas, and gaps in regulatory oversight.

Although numerous studies about unconventional hydrocarbon resource development have been conducted or are underway by a range of very qualified researchers in academia, in non-governmental organizations, in government, and in industry, widespread concerns in the public about misinformation, along with the speed of the increase in the number of new wells and the challenges of managing and analyzing new and existing data, have hindered constructive dialogue about safe and reliable development of these resources over the coming decades in the United States and globally. 

Some U.S. states have proceeded with active development of the resources while state legislatures in others have placed moratoria on the practice of hydraulic fracturing until additional studies about the potential impacts of the practice can be more thoroughly examined.

A new roundtable of the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) is being established to provide a neutral forum where representatives from government, industry, academia, and non-governmental and international organizations (NGOs) can meet on an ongoing basis to:

  • gather, critically examine, and communicate facts and data regarding the scientific, engineering, human and environmental health and safety, regulatory, economic, and societal aspects of unconventional hydrocarbon development;
  • identify and help to advance activities that would be of broad value to key stakeholders; and
  • assist in informing decision making about development of these resources. 

The roundtable will focus its activities in four areas:

(a)  Natural environment—Earth, water, air, ecosystems, geography, climate;

(b)  Human environment—Human health and safety, workforce, public perception and acceptance, community structure;

(c)  Constructed environment—Technology, engineering, and infrastructure; and

(d)  Interfaces and innovation among the natural, human, and constructed environments.

Drawing upon the growing body of work done by researchers at universities, in government, NGOs, and industry, often in partnership with one another, the activities of the roundtable will fundamentally be directed toward identifying and critically discussing available scientific data and information with a decadal view toward unconventional resource development.

The roundtable will inform participants about education and outreach opportunities and ongoing research through public meetings and workshops and will incubate activities to address pressing research issues, to share scientific information and data, and to develop best practices. 

Different approaches by operators, federal and state regulators, and local communities to unconventional resource development in various regions of the United States will also be compared and contrasted to understand differing geologic, geographic, economic, industrial, and socio-cultural circumstances that influence decisions and the potential positive and negative impacts that may result. 

Information gleaned from prior experiences with development of other energy and mineral sources may also be used to inform the approach to unconventional hydrocarbons. There also may be opportunities to consider findings and developments in countries other than the United States.

Energy choices are not easy and involve decisions that can be better informed through knowledge and understanding of available science and technology data. By fostering objective discussions about existing science and technology information for unconventional hydrocarbon development amongst a wide range of stakeholders, the roundtable hopes to contribute constructively to helping people make informed choices about energy based on best-available data. 

Editor’s Note: The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation ( is a funder of the U.S. National Research Council’s aforementioned roundtable.


Dr. Elizabeth Eide is Director, Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, National Research Council in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the NRC as a staff officer in 2005, she served for 12 years as a researcher, team leader, and laboratory manager at the Geological Survey of Norway. She received her B.A. in geology at Franklin and Marshall College, and a Ph.D. in geology from Stanford University. For more information, contact Elizabeth at or visit


The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. 

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