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June 5, 2014

Questions raised during Science Cafe weekly series

STILLWATER, Okla. — Last week’s Science Cafe focused on the basics and process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as well as the effects of drilling mud.

While that presentation answered many questions people had regarding the effects of fracking and its connection to an increase of earthquakes throughout the state, Thursday’s meeting provided little satisfaction to those in attendance.

Dave Shideler and Gina Peek, assistant professors with Ph.Ds at Oklahoma State University, made a joint presentation about hydraulic fracturing and its effects on communities.

Peek said they thought it was important, based on questions asked by the audience in the past, to realize why people should care about fracking and its effects.

Thirty-six percent of natural gas, which can be obtained through hydraulic fracturing with horizontal wells, is used for electricity. In fact, most of it is used for home purposes, such as heating homes and water, drying clothes, electricity and transportation.

Peek said there is 2,203 trillion cubic feet, or Tcf, of natural gas that is recoverable in the United States. At the rate natural gas is consumed in the United States, which is 24 Tcf per year, there is only enough natural gas to last the nation for another 92 years.

Peek referred to this as a “wicked problem,” or a problem that is very difficult to apply answers to. The rest of the presentation was riddled with them.

Peek and Shideler went on to talk about how a hydraulic fracturing boom can affect a community. They addressed how it affects communities and turns them into “boomtowns,” public services, housing, transportation and utilities, the workforce, costs and revenues and sociological impacts.

Shideler said the question is often asked if communities are better or worse off due to hydraulic fracturing. As of now, there is no answer to that question, he said.

Shideler said the main worry is hydraulic fracturing will undergo the natural resource curse, also known as Dutch disease. It occurs when natural resource extraction has a boom phase, which then turns into a boom contraction that eventually turns into post-boom growth that is negative and hurts the economy.

A boomtown, according to Peek’s research, occurs when mining rushes are eccentric, erratic and an epidemic. They break out in unlikely places when least expected, become contagious, then disappear as suddenly as they came.

With a boomtown comes effects on a community and all that is involved with it. There is an increased use of local businesses, an increase in housing demand that may or may not be met, property values may decrease, employment and wages will increase, along with other positive or negative benefits.

But while per capita income may rise in the boomtown, it is unknown if it will translate into wealth within the community and last.

Peek said that it is unknown whether a boomtown in Payne County or elsewhere will actually go through the natural resource curse until they are able to look back at the data. Essentially, there is a chance a boomtown will continue to boom.

Audience members asked a multitude of questions that were not answered to their satisfaction by Peek or Shideler, or were met with responses that implied the answer was not known.

But they, along with next week’s speaker, Dr. Larry Sanders, who will help the audience learn basic facts about state and federal environmental laws and their implications, said the point of this Science Cafe series is to get the community thinking and asking questions about the effects of hydraulic fracturing.

Given the audience’s relentless questioning, the series is successful so far.

Next Thursday’s presentation will be held again at 6:30 p.m. at the Stillwater Public Library.

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