West Virginia University experts say that New York state’s ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a significant decision for its jurisdiction, but it may have long-term limitations. They also warn that comprehensive studies on the environmental impacts of the process are still years away.

The shale-gas industry has seen a recent boom in the United States and is being heralded as a “game changer” for energy markets. But despite the apparent benefits of fracking – the use of pressurized water, sand and chemicals to extract natural gas from shale rock formations deep underground – there is heated public debate about its health and environmental effects.

Timothy Carr, WVU’s Marshall Miller professor of geology, says “Currently there is no scientific data that demonstrates that hydraulic fracturing is intrinsically unsafe compared to other oil and gas wells. That’s why a comprehensive assessment is so important.”

Morgantown Industrial Park (Photo courtesy of Northeast Natural Energy)

Carr teaches shale-gas and oil short courses internationally and works with the U.S. Department of State to assist countries in developing the expertise to establish and regulate unconventional resources. He is also principal investigator for a WVU research project that will create the first-ever laboratory for the long-term study of shale-gas resources that looks at the full life cycle of a well – from drilling to completion to production.

Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, specializes in issues surrounding the use and disposal of water in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region. He points out that many previous studies are based on sampling wells in various developmental stages (drilling, completion and production) without accounting for variability due to the complete cycle. As a result, the data appears highly variable.

“If that data is the only source of information, those who are unfamiliar with industry practices might be perplexed,” he explains. “However, if you take the whole development cycle into account, much of that unexplained variability goes away.”

Ziemkiewicz goes on to explain that many factors make it difficult to link a particular environmental effect to a specific shale-gas operating process.

First, gas-well drilling and completion (hydro-fracturing) happens quickly. A single well can go through the complete cycle in a couple of months.

Second, wells are dispersed among the countryside, while their environmental footprint changes during the drilling-completion-production cycle.

Third, there may be nearby wells that are at various stages in their operating cycle.

Fourth, companies have their own preferred frac formulations and operating procedures, which evolve rapidly as they find more efficient practices.

In contrast, a traditional coal mine may have a life of 30 years in which the process does not change. Therefore, the cumulative impact of a coal mine is much easier to determine.

As part of WVU’s new shale-gas laboratory, a team of scientists including Carr, Ziemkiewicz and other researchers from WVU and Ohio State University will identify projects that address many unresolved issues surrounding shale-gas development.

In cooperation with Northeast Natural Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy the team will examine the effects of hydraulic fracturing on water quality (flowback and produced), solids (cuttings), air, noise and traffic monitoring to develop a comprehensive environmental baseline. They will also complete an impact assessment of shale. The research will identify where to improve the environmental performance of shale-gas operations.

Both Carr and Ziemkiewicz say New York and other states have left the door open for changes. WVU’s research can provide the technical data to inform sound industry practices and regulatory policies that improve gas recovery while increasing the protection of health, safety and the environment.

Joshua Fershee, a WVU professor of law, specializes in energy law and corporate energy-business law. He believes New York’s ban on fracking will have negative outcomes as energy lobbyists wield their influence to combat the state’s decision.

He says that the short-term reality of the ban is that it raises the value of Pennsylvania and West Virginia mineral rights by reducing competition, which is good for mineral rights holders in those states. But the long-term effect of the ban is that it could have a negative impact on environmental regulation.

“Instead of adopting stringent, forward-looking, and state-of-the-art hydraulic fracturing regulations to maximize safety and minimize risk, New York enacted a simple ban,” Fershee says. “It avoids debate about environmental protection and potentially limits the study of how best to manage risk.”

Fershee explains that when natural gas prices rebound, there will be enormous economic pressure to reverse the ban through legislative or other political action. At that point, the debate will no longer be about the quality of regulations or enforcement. It will be about whether the state will allow fracking or not, shifting the debate from the safety of the process to the use of the process.