Univ. researchers address local fracking
Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012
Updated: Friday, January 20, 2012 00:01
West Virginia University researchers are working on a study to address the effect of natural gas drilling on water supplies.
Nicolas Zegre, forest hydrologist in the Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry & Consumer Sciences; and Shika Sharma, a geochemist in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, have come together to lead the project. The project will investigate methane levels in well water in the Monongahela National Forest before and after hydraulic fracturing activity.
The research is made possible by a $27,500 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service and is expected to begin in March.
Hydraulic fracturing is the pumping of pressurized fluids underground in order to fracture bedrock, which allows for easier extraction of natural gas. The process has been used throughout the Marcellus Formation, a deposit of natural gas stretching from Pennsylvania to Eastern Tennessee.
Concerns have been raised about the effect of hydraulic "fracking" on groundwater throughout the Marcellus Formation, including issues of runoff fluid and possible contamination of groundwater aquifers with methane, a flammable gas.
However, there are no conclusive studies to show the before and after effects of the drilling. This study should provide both, Zegre said, giving an accurate picture of environmental impact.
"I think our study has the opportunity to fill lots of knowledge gaps related to the shale," Zegre said, adding that scientific evidence is needed before decisions concerning policies can be made.
"It's important to first understand what's going on. Our study is going to offer information on how drilling affects these wells," he said.
Zegre and Sharma will be studying water samples from six wells that provide water to campgrounds near Sutton Lake. This will allow the project to establish baseline levels of methane gas in the wells. Hydrofracking activities will then take place in the area, and the researchers will return to take additional samples.
Comparing methane levels using the two samples will reveal any possible effects of the drilling. This will allow for a more accurate hydrological model of environmental impact.
Patrick Eisenhauer, a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in forest hydrology, is assisting in the project. Eisenhauer said he believes this research is necessary as well as controversial.
"No such research has ever been done before," Eisenhauer said.
Although companies and environmentalists are eager for answers, the study could take several years, he said.
"I could definitely see this going on for quite a while. This is controversial, but our results are too preliminary to draw any conclusions," he said.
Eisenhauer also said the team has a responsibility to maintain objectivity throughout the process.
"It's important that we focus on the process, and that will help us be objective. That's the most important thing," he said,