Unprecedented: West Virginia University and Ohio State Are Raising the Bar For Shale Drilling Research

The State Journal
17September  2015
By Sarah Tincher, Energy Reporter

A team of researchers with West Virginia University and Ohio State University are getting up close and personal with the Northeast Natural Energy drilling site in Morgantown to study various impacts of shale drilling, and project leaders are calling it an unprecedented opportunity to drive change in the oil and gas industry.

“It’s been very difficult to get all of the kinds of information on the process that we really need to do the good science; to match up the field data with the process data,” said Michael McCawley, interim chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University. “It’s just extremely important to be able to gather this kind of information because it’s very expensive to do it. And to have the opportunity and to be in on that opportunity, it’s really groundbreaking and really important for science and for the people that science serves, which is the rest of the world, really.

“More transparency, better accuracy, better precision,” McCawley said. “That’s the name of the game in science.”

‘Absolutely critical’

The team of geoscientists, hydrologists, engineers, ecologists, social scientists and public health professionals began work on the study earlier in the summer through a five-year, $11 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

“I think (the partnership) is absolutely critical,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of West Virginia Water Research Institute. “Here you have a company that’s operating that’s allowing us access to their site. You have a federal agency, the U.S. DOE, that’s providing the funding to make all this happen, and then you have two major research universities.

“And between them we have a tremendous amount of capability.”

The researchers behind the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory project are looking at everything from health, business and environmental impacts of shale gas drilling, to microseismic activity associated with drilling and biologic makeup of the Marcellus shale, and everything in between.

“(There are a) lot of questions on the impact of these Marcellus wells. They are big wells, no question about it,” said Tim Carr, chair of WVU’s Department of Geology and Geography, and program director of the MSEEL project. “So we’re documenting all the air, the water, the noise, the economic impact of these, as far as direct employment, now you have to go down to the actual drilling.

“So everything from scientific questions to engineering questions to technical questions.”

Finding, solving problems

In addition to testing water and air quality around the active site, as well as monitoring activity during the fracture stimulation of the wells, Northeast Natural Energy has drilled a science observation well between two producing wells, which researchers will use as a “listening post” to gather information that will assist with optimizing well placement and hydraulic fracture design with the Marcellus Shale.

And according to Ziemkiewicz, the project will allow the team to gather data that hasn’t previously been accessible, as no other researchers have been able to access an active well site.

“In terms of the growth of the industry and the technologies that have been employed and the environmental issues that we’re dealing with, they really haven’t been studied in a detailed way at a particular well site,” Ziemkiewicz said.

“The EPA just wrapped up a five-year-long study where they were trying to get on well sites and kind of monitor the same kind of liquid waste streams and solid waste streams that we are, and they really couldn’t get on a well site,” he explained. “So they came up with a very, very expensive report … and never actually got on a well site. So almost all of their data that they were able to use in this was whatever they could find in literature.”

And while Ziemkiewicz said those previous studies have allowed researchers to analyze data in a broader spectrum, the data in those studies isn’t continuous.

“(The MSEEL project) allows us to take the environmental monitoring right through the stages of drilling,” Ziemkiewicz said. “The whole point of this research project is really to find out whether there’s anything that needs to be addressed, any environmental issues — in other words identify problems, if there are any — and once you’ve done that, find out how to solve those problems.”

Ziemkiewicz also said the unique location of the well site — which lies on the southwestern outskirts of Morgantown overlooking the WVU campus from across the Monongahela River — could really help motivate the team to seek out possible hazards with the production process.

“The thing that makes this important from an urban point of view is you have a lot of people around and you have a major drinking water supply,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Usually that’s not the case.

“It’s also significant when you get in the air and noise issues,” he added. “It’s an important spot in that you really have to make sure that you’re not generating any waste and if they are, we need to document those and find out where they’re coming from. If we’re getting gaseous emissions that are at harmful levels to people we need to figure out where they are and how to stop them.”

Driving change

The researchers are also tasked with studying the influence unconventional shale drilling could have on energy production.

As technology has advanced and the industry has become more efficient, oil and gas prices have plummeted, causing a sort of revolution in the state and nation’s energy industry.

“It’s really driven down the price of energy; that’s a challenge for West Virginia … because it’s driven the price of coal down,” Carr said. “The tax base on severance for coal and gas — both those are down and that’s because we’ve gotten too good at it.

“That’s a pretty typical thing with any resource; we get too good at it and we drive the price down,” he added. “But that’s good for the rest of the economy, that’s good for consumers.”

And Bill Hughes, who works with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition as well as FracTracker, hopes the MSEEL project will help the oil and gas industry “move to a sustainable concept.”

“Some of the ways we’ve gone about this aren’t sustainable,” Hughes said. “If we do, in fact, want to decrease coal use, and water and air pollution due to coal use, we don’t want to swap it for another form of pollution.

“Industry and a lot of environmental folks have been trying to answer the question, ‘Can this be done right?’, and that hasn’t been answered yet,” he said.
While Hughes isn’t certain the drilling process actually can be done in a sustainable way, he is optimistic for what the team will find.

“This should begin to answer that, so I’m optimistic the group they have together should be able to help make the process sustainable,” he said. “This will be a very worthwhile endeavor on the parts of West Virginia and Ohio to understand our future for energy production.”

Delaying reform

While some are eager to see what MSEEL will bring to the table, others are questioning the necessity of the project.

“Certainly we always want to support good research and more information is helpful; our concern is that we already know enough to justify much more regulation of industry to limit their environmental impacts,” said Jim Kotcon, chairman of the Energy Committee for the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“We think it is important to move forward the kinds of rules that would prevent spills and require closed systems to reduce methane gas emissions, reduce truck traffic ... and be sure benefits touted are in fact achieved,” he said. “We’re not sure research will help us solve some of the basic problems people are experiencing living next to shale drilling sites.

“We really would do better to move forward than delay that needed reform because ongoing research is still underway,” Kotcon added. “We think the industry needs much more stringent regulation right now.”

Additionally, Kotcon said state regulators should be making more efforts to prevent potential problems before they happen.

“It’s very irresponsible for our state to continue to issue permits when major potential problems exist for which their only claim is we don’t have the data,” he said. “We should be acting on a much more precautionary approach and make sure the industry provides the necessary data to the public and regulatory agencies before we allow further permitting and well drilling.”