There's no such thing as a free megawatt: Hydrofracking as a gateway drug to energy literacy

Don Duggan-Haas, Paleontological Research Institution



Slickwater high-volume hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking is a method for extracting oil and natural gas that is highly controversial. The process is clearly environmentally damaging, but so is every method of producing energy on a large scale. This case recognizes the teachable moment provided by the heightened interest in where our energy comes from. It offers an eight hour program (designed as a teacher professional development workshop, but adaptable to undergraduate or high school courses) that complexifies what seems like a simple issue to many. It also includes links to an array of resources that provide instructional materials for teaching activities for as short as a single class or provide the foundation to a course. Investigating the environmental, cultural, and economic impacts of hydrofracking and contextualizing it in the broader energy system highlights a wide range of ethical questions and draws attention to a simple (sort of) bottom line: We need to use a lot less energy.

A version of this has been piloted in an inservice teacher professional development workshop, but it is adaptable to a range of audiences from high school through undergraduate courses.

Class size: 15 to 30 participants

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
With practicing science teachers, basic science literacy is assumed. Content knowledge specific to hydrofracking, however, is assumed to be minimal.

How the activity is situated in the course
The activity follows an introduction to hydrofracking and other energy sources. Students will need to research and prepare presentation materials outside of class time.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Participants will:

  • Describe and compare environmental impacts of a range of energy sources with attention to scale (amount of impact/btu of useful energy, for example);
  • Contextualize hydrofracking and its associated environmental, economic, and social issues within Earth and human systems;
  • Identify logical fallacies in the arguments of others and avoid logical fallacies in their own arguments;
  • Describe ways in which any method of producing energy on a large scale is environmentally damaging, and that the only environmentally harmless energy source is the one that is not used

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The activity addresses all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, but most importantly analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Participants will compare and contrast energy sources, recognizing and identifying costs and benefits of each, with attention to their impacts across both Earth systems and human systems.

Other skills goals for this activity

The activity reinforces the idea of complexifying the seemingly simple, which cuts across a range of controversial issues, if not all controversial issues. Further, it highlights problems of traditional approaches to argument (argument-as-war), that can lead to more engrained polarization rather than deeper understandings, and applies alternative approaches that are intended to reduce these risks.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Our energy use involves a wide range of ethical issues. Because of our energy use, people suffer and die, and ecosystems are changed substantially, displacing or killing native species, contaminating air, water, and soil, and changing the global climate. A separate, but related set of ethical issues are related to the way in which we argue and advocate. A series of questions highlights related ethical principles. The term, "costs" refers not only to economic costs, but also the costs paid in human health and environmental damage.

About Energy:

  • Can we make informed decisions about changes to our energy system if we do not know where we get our energy from now?
  • Who is paying the environmental cost for our current energy habits?
  • Who would pay the costs if the resource is developed?
  • What environmental and economic costs will come due at a later date?
  • Which is greater, the cost of development or the cost of efficiency measures?
  • Are accidents known to kill or injure people? Consider extraction, transit, and use. How does the death and injury rate compare to other sources per unit of energy?
  • Does standard use alter the environment in ways known to kill or injure people? How does the death and injury rate compare to other sources per unit of energy?
  • Are there political costs or benefits associated with this energy source? Is the military involved in the protection of this resource?

About Argument: (See Daniel H. Cohen's related TED Talk, "For argument's sake":

  • What is the primary purpose of the argument? Is it about, competition (argument-as-war), entertainment (argument-as-performance), or learning and teaching (argument-as-proof)?
  • Does the winner avoid learning? (Does learning = losing?)
  • Does the argument move the participants toward solutions? Does it facilitate deliberation, negotiation, compromise, and/or collaboration?
  • Does the argument deepen divisions?
  • Is treating "the other side" as adversary an effective way to build their understanding?

Description and Teaching Materials

The case uses hydrofracking and the energy system more broadly as an example. We begin by recognizing that the interest in hydrofracking can serve as a hook to draw people into learning about the broader energy system. Most of our work has taken place in New York State where a moratorium on slickwater high volume hydraulic fracturing is in place and the practice is highly controversial. Many people are suddenly interested in where their energy comes from, and for many, it is the first time they have had this interest. The place of energy in the K-12 curriculum is typically small, and most New Yorkers do not have knowledge of where their energy comes from.

Case Study Scenario

Teaching Notes and Tips


References and Resources

Resources used in our hydrofracking education programming:

  • The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale by Don Duggan-Haas, Robert M. Ross, and Warren D. Allmon. This is our book on the topic. See:
  • There's no such thing as a free megawatt: Hydrofracking as a gateway drug to energy literacy - an extensive online interactive presentation (a Prezi). See:
  • Associated Google Earth file:
  • Interactive quiz for all 50 states' electricity energy sources:
Resources for addressing logical fallacies:

  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi (online book)
  • Though Shall Not Commit Logical Fallacies website and poster by Jesse Richardson, Andy Smith and Som Meaden:
Resources for alternatives to debate activities:

  • Expeditionary Learning Protocols (through the EngageNY website) - a collection of different teaching strategies that is applicable across a wide range of educational settings:
    • Recommended protocols for replacing debate: Chalk Talk (page 9); Take a Stand (page 33); Fishbowl (page 13); World Café (page 36)
  • Last Week Tonightwith John Oliver - climate debate segment: Does Bill Nye understand that the joke is partly on him?
  • GSA Short Course on Teaching Controversial Subjects (2013): The course will be revised and repeated at the 2014 meeting.