A Rock and a Hard Place: Stevens Institute of Technology Lecture Examines U.S. Revolution in Unconventional Oil and Gas Production


Dr. John Deutch giving a speech behind a podium at Stevens Institute of Technology

Hoboken, N.J. – Economically and geopolitically, the recent surge in oil and gas production in the United States is a positive development for the nation. But the method used to tap into reserves and produce oil and gas resources, hydraulic fracture or “fracking,” has been sharply critiqued and even condemned for the dangers it poses to both people and environment.

An illustrious science and technology leader, Dr. John Deutch, delivered an address at Stevens Institute of Technology this week which framed the high-level issues surrounding the fracking industry. Deutch also called for technological advances, policy measures and regulations to minimize the environmental impacts of fracking, which he believes could potentially shape the environmental and economic future of the nation and all of North America.

Deutch, institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has studied the energy agenda in the U.S. for more than 50 years, both during his four decades on the MIT faculty and through several significant federal government posts, including director of the Central Intelligence Agency, deputy secretary of the Department of Defense, and undersecretary in the Department of Energy. He has also served on several science- and technology-focused presidential commissions, including one which investigated ways to make fracking a cleaner, greener extraction process.

The chosen speaker for the fall 2013 President’s Distinguished Lecture Series at Stevens, Deutch explained the science behind fracking, a mining process which involves injecting a fluid mixture of water and a small amount of chemical additives at high pressure into a drill hole to break apart rocks and extract natural resources trapped deep beneath the earth’s surface.

With escalating fuel prices and the gradual depletion of the world’s energy reserves, Deutch said fracking – which made possible the current shale gas drilling boom in North America – is an economically viable energy strategy which stimulates well production of natural gas, an energy source often used for heating and cooking, electrical power, and when converted to liquid, even fuel.

Deutch demonstrated how fracking has helped the U.S. extract previously inaccessible unconventional oil and gas resources and greatly boost energy production. As a result, the U.S. has reduced its dependency on imported oil and realized other economic benefits, including job creation in the domestic oil and gas industry and lower energy prices for the consumer. Fracking has also brought positive geopolitical benefits to the U.S. by shifting power from traditional oil supplying countries and giving the U.S. more influence in the global oil and gas markets. Deutch noted that the U.S. could itself become an exporter of oil.

“Unconventional oil and gas represent a staggering change to the nation’s energy outlook,” Deutch said.

However, Deutch said the fracking industry is threatened by concerns over its environmental and health impacts. Risks of air and water contamination from the chemicals used in fracking and quality of life issues for local communities where fracking occurs have sparked lawsuits, bans and protests across the country.

“The question is: Will the public see this type of exploration go forward?” Deutch said. 

Deutch said innovative technical solutions and policy measures to regulate the conduct of oil companies are essential to making fracking a long-term energy strategy for the nation. Questions about how to reuse, treat or dispose of contaminated “flowback water” from fracking operations need to be answered. Best practices must be set to ensure dangerous methane gas cannot leak from the pipes drilled deep underground. And the public must be informed about the extremely minimal risk of drinking water contamination from fracking.   

“We need to manage the environmental impacts of fracking and the stewardship of these natural resources so we can enjoy the economic and geopolitical benefits unconventional oil and gas bring,” Deutch said.

The President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, launched by Stevens President Farvardin in October 2012, offers unprecedented access to influential scientists, technologists and policymakers who are shaping 21st century society. It focuses on important topics in science and technology, the linkages between societal issues and advances in science and technology, and related policy issues.

“This series was created to offer substantive discussion about significant issues in science and technology at a very high level,” said Stevens President Nariman Farvardin. “The recent developments in the energy sector concern every American citizen and bring a host of related public policy implications. These are the kinds of discussions universities should be a part of.”

Past President’s Distinguished Lecture Series speakers include Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Dr. Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

For more information about the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, please visit www.stevens.edu/lecture

About Stevens Institute of Technology

Stevens Institute of Technology, The Innovation University®, is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, N.J. overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Founded in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark and legacy of Stevens’ education and research programs for more than 140 years. Within the university’s three schools and one college, more than 6,100 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with more than 350 faculty members in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment to advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront global challenges. Stevens is home to three national research centers of excellence, as well as joint research programs focused on critical industries such as healthcare, energy, finance, defense, STEM education and coastal sustainability. The university is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite for return on investment for students, career services programs and mid-career salaries of alumni. Stevens is in the midst of a 10-year strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create., designed to further extend the Stevens legacy to create a forward-looking and far-reaching institution with global impact.