Alumna’s Research Aims to Help U.K. Avoid Fracking Liabilities

1.10.2017
Miriam Aczel '08
Miriam Aczel '08

The technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has propelled the United States toward energy independence. But for many Americans, the environmental consequences are a cause for concern. Miriam Aczel ’08, a doctoral student at Imperial College in London, is undertaking research to help the United Kingdom learn from experiences in the United States.
“I am working in the Centre for Environmental Policy so my project really is about using good science to make strong policy recommendations,” Miriam explained. “The U.K. is likely going to start using techniques of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas. I am looking at the experience of the U.S. and trying to use that experience to identify strategies to make sure that if fracking is done in the U.K., risks to public and environmental health are minimized.”

Miriam, who earned an undergraduate degree at McGill and her master’s at Imperial, said “since Maimonides, I’ve been looking for ways to bring together my multiple passions: the compelling need for tikkun olam; languages and cultures; understanding how the world works; and the need to express complicated science concepts to those in charge of policy. I have found a way to bring all these passions together in my research subject.”

She expects her efforts to take more than three years, addressing issues ranging from comparing systems of laws and regulations to managing environmental and health protection. “What’s exciting to me is that my work is at the intersection of public policy and science: How do we ensure that the science is as good as possible and that policy is as effective as possible?” she said.

“I have wonderful support from the Centre, which is a close-knit community and very multidisciplinary, comprised of climate and energy scientists, barristers and lawyers, policy experts, and environmental and health experts,” Miriam continued. She added that she also has “great support through various places I’ve worked,” including geologists in the London Natural History Museum’s CT Core Research Lab and a London law firm.

Miriam acknowledged that “there’s so much research and data on the environment and fracking, but it often seems to get lost in translation to policy. One of the issues that I’m particularly passionate about is the role of ‘citizen science,’ where members of a community can volunteer to participate in a range of activities, like taking pictures of streams and water sources, and recording water and air quality through the use of pocket measuring devices that can be linked to smartphones.”

“Some of the biggest policy issues we’ve seen with fracking in the U.S. have been the lack of baseline data on water and air quality, and the lack of public engagement and participation in decision making, so implementing citizen science programs could help with tackling these problems.”

Every country has unique issues, Miriam commented. “The technology of hydraulic fracturing is banned in France, but there’s a massive loophole if they develop a way to break the rocks without using water. In the U.K., property laws are problematic for landowners — new laws mean there is no requirement to ask owners’ permission to drill when at least 500 meters under their land. In the U.S., while landowners can choose not to lease their land resources, there’s a big issue with lack of transparency.”

Miriam is spending several weeks as a visiting researcher at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC. “Lawyers here work on a range of issues, from environmental compliance and pollution, to air quality, citizen science, and fracking and property laws,” she said.

“Part of the problem is that after water or land is contaminated, gas firms can pay settlements to landowners but they have to sign non-disclosure agreements,” she explained. “Also, the chemicals used in drilling are ‘proprietary blends’ so companies can consider them trade secrets, which leaves doctors and vets in a situation where they’re trying to treat symptoms resulting from a mystery cocktail of chemicals. Another key issue in the U.S. is the patchwork of local, state, and federal regulations, and a lack of enforcement ‘teeth’ at all of these levels.

“Political instability and changes in government only make environmental regulations harder to enforce,” she added. “When I finished my master’s, my conclusion was that fracking in the U.K. would likely be better regulated because of the country’s position within the European Union and its strong regulatory framework. But by the time I started my Ph.D, they had Brexited.”

Eventually, “My interest in translating science into policy makes me want to work on policy in an international setting,” Miriam said. “As the environment is a field that doesn’t respect borders, there’s a great need to improve frameworks for collaboration. I’m also interested in environmental quality as a common need and a vector for political action and peacebuilding, and would like to work on using language and communication as a tool for encouraging and promoting collaborative environmental protection.”