Prompt: Sketch a resource web for your ecological-economic problem.
I’m not a huge fan of visual/artistic approaches to problems, but I sketched this out as far as I could, and then I addressed a bunch of the questions the workbook asked in text, below the diagram.
We are planning on addressing some aspect of the explosion in high-volume hydraulic fracturing gas wells in the Marcellus Shale for our problem. Here is my resource web for such a gas well pad. Please let me know via comments what I’ve overlooked.
Opportunity costs of material and energy use – The primary opportunity cost seems to be that of the water that is used in drilling. That water comes from rivers and streams where it is the medium of ecosystems. Obviously, it cannot be used by humans for drinking or recreation once it has been pulled from its source.
There are profound ecological impacts stemming from the extraction and processing of the materials used as inputs. Metals have to be mined, purified, reduced, and shaped into their usable forms, all of which have associated ecological costs, some of which are severe. The production of oil for use as fuel on site and in trucks and in the production of chemicals and plastic liners comes with serious ecological costs.
At this point, the workbook asks, for each of the resources that flow into your system, what other resources were required to acquire this resource and transform it into a desired good or service? I appreciate the point on which they want students to dwell—that production chains are long and complex and are associated with a wide variety of pollution and opportunity costs—but to make even a half-assed attempt at answering this question to any depth is far beyond the scope of this assignment.
Opportunity costs of waste production – Obviously, atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide and methane have tremendous consequences for ecosystems throughout the world vis-à-vis climate change. Locally, the input to ecosystems of wastewater is a serious problem. It is sometimes delivered directly to land surfaces, sometimes taken to treatment plants (that are not equipped to deal with the range of pollutants it contains), and sometimes injected underground, all of which have associated consequences. Furthermore, there have been numerous reports of illegal disposal of wastewater, into streams, on roads, on site, etc. The high total dissolved solids (TDS) of wastewater is a serious problem as the water makes its way into streams (which often already have high TDS from coal mining), the biological functioning of which can be severely impaired by high TDS.
Opportunity costs of the physical system – In Appalachia, well pads are often located on farms. There have been reports of farm land, beyond the physical boundaries of the well pad, becoming unusable due to pollution associated with drilling, fracturing, and emissions. The documentary Split Estate, which I recommend highly, shows homeowners in Colorado being forced to leave their homes due to air pollution from nearby wells.