Wealth of Baseline Data Collected at Future PA Gas Well Site

The State Journal
14 June 2012
By Pam Kasey

An overgrown farm in southwestern Pennsylvania maybe one of the most studied sites in the region.

In spite of the fact that nothing has happened there in 50 years, researchers have gathered extensive data on air quality, soil and water chemistry, wildlife and past human activities.

It's a broad agency and university effort to establish baseline environmental conditions in advance of shale gas well drilling, according to National Energy Technology Laboratory geologist Richard Hammack.

"We're documenting conditions that exist prior to development," Hammack said.

"It was a government-industry partnership that got it started," Hammack said of conversations between NETL and Range Resources that led to the project. "Other agencies looked at it and said, ‘This looks like a good idea,' so we just accumulated partners as we went along. Everybody's bringing their own funding."

The site is a long-disused agricultural field of about 25 acres in southwest Pennsylvania where Range Resources has been permitted to drill Marcellus wells, and data-gathering has been going on there for about a year.

"We put our air monitoring trailer on the site last June or July," Hammack said of some of the first data-gathering at the site. The laboratory took eight months of baseline air quality data.

NETL also conducted a helicopter magnetic survey to map all wells that have steel well casings in them. Any wells that are unmapped and were drilled before the state's 1921 law that requires capping could affect migration of fluids or gas.

NETL also is mapping conductivity in the soil so that, if the high-conductivity fracturing fluid or produced water is spilled, its path can be traced. And the laboratory has analyzed surface water chemistry.

Hammack outlined some of the varieties of data other researchers are gathering in advance of industrial activity.

The Environmental Protection Agency is drilling five groundwater monitoring wells and sampling nearby drinking water wells as part of its Congressional mandate to investigate links between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, he said. The U.S. Geological Survey and Pennsylvania Geological Survey also are involved in that project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is characterizing streams, he said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has conducted a bat census and possibly other studies. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has done a census of fish and macroinvertebrates in the streams.

Pennsylvania State University is looking at landscape characteristics, he added, and West Virginia University is doing a shrubland bird survey.

Range's schedule for drilling at that site has shifted because of the low price of natural gas, according to Tony Gaudlip, who was involved directly with the project early on and who remains aware of the schedule in his current position. The company may begin wellpad construction as late as early 2014.

Hammack feels confident that the scope of the data gathered at the site will be unprecedented.

"There have been environmental studies of shale gas development, and quite often those studies only take place after the drilling's occurred — there's been some suspected impact, then they go in afterwards. The problem is, you can't unring the bell," Hammack said. "As far as I know, this is by far the most comprehensive study of this type that's ever been attempted."