Marcellus Shale Potential Studied

WVU students researching formation’s physical properties

Wheeling Intelligencer
 3 June 2011
By Casey Junkins, Staff Writer

MORGANTOWN - Meg Walker-Milani's passion for rocks allows her to help develop West Virginia's burgeoning Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

The West Virginia University graduate student joins fellow scholars Jessica Hayward, Elise Swan and Tom Donahoe in studying the chemical and physical properties of the shale, which stretches from New York to Tennessee. The entire rock formation could hold as many as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to industry estimates.

"This research can help us determine where the best gas shale is. It helps to know how things accumulated, because then you know where to look and how to best produce it," said Tim Carr, WVU geology professor.

"This research should help us better understand the reservoir," said Walker-Milani, a WVU Department of Geology and Geography graduate student.

As part of her thesis, Walker-Milani focuses on learning how the rocks were formed.

She said, "I've had a lot of fun conducting this research. I've gotten to see all of West Virginia, including little nooks and crannies that you would never see unless you were trying to get lost."

To conduct her analyses of the rocks, Walker-Milani uses a piece of equipment called a spectral scintillometer, which measures the amount of thorium, uranium and potassium present in the rock.

"In West Virginia, the Marcellus hasn't been studied as much as it has been in New York and Pennsylvania, so it was a chance to dig a little deeper into the details of the rocks here in West Virginia," she said. "I was drawn to sedimentology because you can tell so much about a particular paleoenvironment that existed millions of years ago just by studying the rocks in detail."

After all of the data is collected, Walker-Milani will work on creating a log curve to correlate to subsurface data. This way, her interpretation of the rocks can be compared with subsurface well data.

Walker-Milani's advisor is Richard Smosna, a WVU geology professor whose research interests focus on sedimentology, stratigraphy and petroleum geology.

"We need to know a lot more about the physical, chemical and geological make-up of the Marcellus Shale in order to properly assess its petroleum potential. The importance of Meg's study is that in eastern West Virginia, the Marcellus is well exposed at the surface for examination," said Smosna.

In August, Walker-Milani will graduate with her master's degree in geology and go on to work for Shell Oil Co., a company that has leased acreage for development in the formation.

With funding from the Energy Corporation of America, Hayward, Swan and Donahoe gained access to essential resources necessary to conduct their work.

Hayward is researching the ash beds within the Marcellus formation. Using rock core samples, he is trying to identify the ages of each layer within the formation and the length of time it takes for the shale to deposit.

Swan focuses on how faults underneath and within the Marcellus affect the location and extraction of natural gas.

Using modeling techniques, she can determine how faults have formed over time.

"Faults can provide natural cracks within the Marcellus, which have the possibility of helping in extraction, or they reach the surface and may indicate where the gas has traveled through the faults and escaped at the surface, which would mean no gas would be found in that location," she said.

"This research may help to define the usefulness of advanced technologies to future exploration and development of natural gas resources in the region," added Donahoe, who applies software to interpret subsurface structures, including folds, faults and fractures in within the shale.