In some parts of the United States, extracting natural gas from shale rock has a negative effect both below and above ground.

Such effects of gas extraction on the environment include degrading freshwater systems, displacing rare species, eroding soil and fragmenting fragile habitats. Unfortunately, it has long been established that minimizing the effects of drilling may come at a greater cost for developers.

Now, a new algorithm developed by scientists may help reduce environmental impact.

Thanks to the algorithm, a team of scientists led by Austin Milt of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) have found that the additional costs for developers are actually even smaller than the savings made to the environment.

This suggests that the benefits far outweigh the harm.

Constructing Shale Gas Sites

The new NIMBioS study indicates that on average, a 20 percent increase in development costs could cut surface-level environment impact by more than a third.

Milt and his colleagues developed an algorithm to quantify the costs of environmental impacts. The main goal was to find out how the construction of additional shale gas sites would help them achieve this plan.

The novel algorithm helped them design the construction of access roads, well pads, and pipelines at 84 sites in Pennsylvania, which was chosen to represent shale energy development in the U.S. because of its 10,000 drilled wells.

The new algorithm plans infrastructure the same way most developers do, adhering to strict regulations and practices. The only difference is that the primary goal for each plan is to protect the environment, researchers said.

Results Of The Study

In the end, Milt and his team found that while developers can indeed reduce environmental impact at a small cost, the outcomes were dependent on the characteristics of the shale gas site.

Several of the effects were easier to address and therefore less costly to avoid than others. For instance, a large portion of the impacts on the environment could be prevented by steering development away from areas considered as habitats for endangered and rare species.

Because the results rely on site conditions, scientists say the right approach to regulate infrastructure development is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Milt says there are other, more flexible alternatives that would minimize impacts on the environment at the same or less cost.

Details of the study are published in the journal Conservation Biology.

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