After many months of preparation and preliminary study, drilling is set to begin today (June 26) on the vertical sections – known as top holes – of a science well and two production wells that comprise the nation’s first integrated research initiative on shale gas drilling.

The science well is the centerpiece of the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environmental Laboratory, called MSEEL, which West Virginia University launched in fall 2014 in partnership with Northeast Natural Energy, the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy and The Ohio State University. The five-year, $11 million project is unprecedented. It is the first-ever long-term, comprehensive field study of shale gas resources in which scientists will study the process from beginning-to-end.

Starting today, Northeast Natural Energy, a Charleston-based oil and natural gas company, will drill the top holes for the new wells at the Morgantown Industrial Park. Currently, the company has two wells at the site, which have been in operation since 2011.

The top holes will be drilled with an air-rotary rig. The rig will drill to depths greater than 6,000 feet and will be cased in accordance with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection standards for Marcellus Shale development.

As part of the project, a team of researchers will use the science well and surface locations to monitor the impact of shale gas drilling and production activity over an extended time frame. The same wells will be used to evaluate new technologies for increasing the efficiency of unconventional resource development.

“The MSEEL project and the partnerships with NETL, Northeast Natural Energy and Ohio State are very exciting for WVU,” said Brian Anderson, director of WVU’s Energy Institute.

“The project represents the power of collaboration and the potential for research with great impact,” he said. “The work that starts this weekend is the next big step in this groundbreaking project. It is exciting to see the progress that has been made to this point and it is a real testament to the hard work that all the project partners have done thus far.”

Since the project began, scientists have been monitoring baseline air, noise, light and water at the site. Those assessments will continue through the life cycle of the project. With the addition of the science well, the research team can gather a massive amount of geological, environmental and other data continually from active wells.

While drilling the science well, 100 feet of core sample and roughly 50 one-inch side-wall core samples will be extracted for geophysical, geochemical and microbiological investigation. Additionally, the research team will create image logs using these samples to construct a picture of the Marcellus in the deep subsurface, which is necessary to gain a better understanding of the organic content and characteristics of the shale formation.

Scientific instruments in the wells will make geoseismic measurements of the subsurface during the fracture stimulation process. Water and subsurface fluid will be analyzed before, during and after drilling and fracturing of the horizontal wells. Fiber optics in the production wells will monitor gas and fluids on an inch-by-inch basis along the entire length of the horizontal wells.

“What makes this field laboratory unique is that we are collecting the data in real time on site over the entire life cycle of the drilling, completion and production,” said Timothy Carr, WVU’s Marshall Miller professor of Geology and director of the lab. “We have brought together scientists, engineers, ecologists, public health professionals, social scientists and more to gain a comprehensive look at everything from the strength of the rock to the economic impact on communities.”

Before 2000, unconventional oil and gas resources like shale gas were commercially unobtainable. Now new technologies have allowed the natural gas trapped inside formations of shale – sedimentary rock found deep underground – to be accessed.

Shale gas is released by drilling a deep vertical well followed by drilling horizontally. Next, hydraulic fracturing uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to crack subsurface rock and create fissures that release the natural gas, which is returned to the surface along with produced water.

In just the past seven years, breakthroughs in technology have reduced the number of drill sites required to cover a reservoir area, cut back the amount of time required to drill by 50%, and decreased the amount of waste. These advances have translated into a reduced surface impact, less traffic on site and diminished emissions.

During final drilling and completion operations of the two production wells this fall, Northeast Natural Energy will use these and other new technologies to further improve natural gas development and recovery practices.

The project is operated under the purview of a 2013 memorandum of understanding between WVU and Ohio State. As part of the shale energy partnership, the two institutions agreed to work collaboratively to develop a joint program of research in the Appalachian Region’s developing shale energy industry.

More information about the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory, including a detailed project timeline, can be found at