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Ohio University's Miller named one of 24 most influential "power players" in shale

Corinne Colbert
February 17, 2014

Depending on whom you ask, development of the Utica and Marcellus shales in Ohio is either an economic boon or an environmental disaster.  Trying to make sense of it all is a key task for the Consortium for Energy, Economics, and the Environment at Ohio University.

“Ohio University is doing a lot of stuff — looking at recycling the wastewater from fracking, making advanced materials from byproducts, advising on innovative policy to mitigate the negatives on the environment, and looking at economic impacts,” said Scott Miller, CE3’s director.

In fact, Miller and his team have irons in so many of Ohio’s fracking fires that Crain’s SHALE Magazine has named Miller one of the 24 most influential “power players” in the state.

“It’s really important for an institution like ours to be involved in this issue,” Miller said. “It’s the largest energy development in Ohio in 100 years, and Ohio University is well positioned to be doing this work.”

That position is thanks to CE3, a cooperative venture among three entities at Ohio University: It connects the Voinovich School’s experts in environmental studies and public policy with biologists, chemists, economists and political scientists in the College of Arts and Sciences and with civil, mechanical and chemical engineers in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

“Other institutions have either a small group of faculty or experts working together, or focus on just one aspect of these issues,” Miller said. “CE3 is designed to look at the intersection of economics and the environment for a whole spectrum of energies.”

None of CE3’s previous work has been as polarizing as shale development, but as Miller points out, he and his colleagues are scientists first. “This issue has the ability to fracture communities, social norms, and long-term community cohesiveness,” Miller said. “It also has the potential to be a tremendous positive. We’re very aware of the controversy, but we need to maintain objectivity to have the credibility to talk with the industry and with environmentalists.”

Not that he’s complaining. “It’s a good time to be in research and education in this area,” he said.

Looking for answers

Ohio has a long history with the extraction industries, including oil and gas; John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland in 1870. The state’s oil and gas industry petered out in the mid-20th century, having tapped most of the state’s reachable reserves. But it came roaring back in the second decade of the 21st century, when technology developments made it possible for drillers to reach deposits deep in the Marcellus and Utica shales.

Hydraulic fracturing isn’t new; drillers have blasted wells with a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals to break up rock and release oil and gas since the 1950s. And directional drilling — the ability to make bends in a borehole without drilling a separate well — dates to the 1930s. Today, however, companies can drill longer and deeper wells to reach huge reserves of oil and gas from a single small platform.

“They’re using NASA-type equipment to drill to depths unimaginable — to the source rock where the oil and gas comes from,” Miller said.

As a result, the United States has become a net exporter of oil, and production of natural gas is expected to triple by 2040. Higher production has driven prices down, decreasing costs for consumers and making it financially feasible for power plants to convert from coal to natural gas.

Shale development isn’t without its costs, though; environmentalists worry about contamination of water tables, environmental degradation from fracking waste, and increased risks of earthquakes both from oil and gas extraction and the injection of fracking waste underground. Local officials worry about wear and tear on public infrastructure and the rise in housing costs and crime that can come with a highly paid, out-of-state workforce.

CE3 researchers are involved in all of those matters in the lab, in the field and by surveying county and city officials. But they’re also asking some bigger questions.

 “If natural gas is a bridge fuel, where is that bridge going? What are we going to do 10, 20, 30 years from now when the oil is gone? How can we use the investment in shale development as a catalyst for new industries to fuel our regional economy?” Miller asked.

Miller and his colleagues hope that the influx of money from and interest in the energy industry will leave Ohio stronger.

“Our long-term interest is in whether Ohio can break its dependence on the extraction industries and the boom-and-bust cycle that comes with them,” he said. “That’s what a university is designed to do: to research and study issues.”

Bubbling up

In addition to highlighting Miller and CE3, Crain’s SHALE Magazine made use of the consortium’s extensive list of 1,300 companies that supply goods and services to the shale development industry. It is a twin to an earlier supply chain database CE3 developed for Ohio’s growing renewable energy sector at the behest of then-Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration.

“Ohio is good at making stuff,” Miller said. “It turns out that many of the things that go into wind turbines are the same as the things that go into cars. The manufacturers diversified to meet that need.”

So when the shale development boom began, Miller and his team thought, why not do a similar list for the shale industry? With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CE3 did just that. The database is free and available to anyone who asks for it.

“We’re trying to make it more useful,” Miller said. “Right now it’s just a directory. We’re doing outreach to see how it could be used more widely and be improved.”

CE3 is growing its own connections to other researchers in the field. Miller is immediate past chair of the University Clean Energy Alliance of Ohio, which seeks to make the expertise and insight of researchers at 11 public universities and the NASA Glenn Research Center available to private business and public policymakers. Miller sits on the group’s Shale Energy Initiative Working Group; Al Cote, coordinator of the Southeast Ohio Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science in the Patton College of Education, is a member of the Energy Education Working Group.

At the same time, CE3 is reaching out to researchers in Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Colorado, and North Dakota — which also are experiencing an oil and gas boom through fracking — to share findings.

The recognition by Crain’s SHALE Magazine has helped to boost CE3’s reputation and profile among researchers, policymakers, and industry, Miller said.

“Any kind of publicity for our work gives us recognition and helps us build more relationships, which leads to more work,” he said.

The online magazine can be found here: http://www.crainscleveland.com/assets/pdf/CC919101120.PDF