A new study by researchers at West Virginia University offers 10 recommendations for reducing the environmental and human health effects associated with horizontal drilling and the hydraulic fracturing process.

The recommendations address air, noise and light pollution; water management; and engineering flaws associated with horizontal gas well development and completion.

The study, titled Practical measures for reducing the risk of environmental contamination in shale energy production, is co-authored by Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute John Quaranta, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and Michael McCawley, interim chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Gas extraction from shale gas formations has been made possible by recent advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology. In the eastern United States, the Marcellus Formation gas play is one of the nation’s major natural gas reserves and in West Virginia alone, nearly 3,000 horizontal wells have been developed since 2008.

While rapid adoption of these methods has led to a surge in natural gas production in the United States, it has also increased public concern about its environmental and human health effects.

“These facilities are often located within a few hundred meters of homes and farms, many of which are supplied by shallow water wells,” explains Ziemkiewicz. “As a result, many of the public’s concerns focus on air and groundwater pollution as well as light and noise associated with horizontal drilling and well completion. This study was initiated largely due to these public concerns.”

Ziemkiewicz, along with the other researchers, conducted a thorough review of environmental literature relevant to shale gas development and examined over 15 Marcellus shale facilities in northern West Virginia. The researchers provide the following recommendations as a result of their study:

  • On-site containment – Well sites should have properly constructed containment structures in the event of a well blowout or massive fluid leak.
  • Blowout preventers – All wells should include blowout preventers to bring any uncontrolled fluid release under control quickly.
  • Wellbore integrity – All wells should be pressure tested before hydraulic fluid injection.
  • Waste transportation plans –The planned disposal of liquid and solid waste should be a required and enforceable component of the well’s permit.
  • Solid waste characterization – Additional studies on the solid wastes from hydraulic fracturing are needed in order to identify inorganic, organic and radioactive contaminants.
  • Pits and impoundments – Better training is needed for regulatory and industry field inspectors to significantly improve the design and construction of storage pits and impoundments for liquid waste.
  • Air monitors and sound meters – Installation of air monitors and sound meters at sensitive locations and connect to a central monitoring station.
  • Noise reduction – Route traffic away from residences (where possible), use better wetting agents to reduce peak dust exposures, and stage traffic to reduce both diesel exhaust concentrations and noise.
  • Characterization of the source of airborne contaminants – Further research is needed to identify the source of airborne contaminants found at horizontal drilling operations in order to effectively manage emissions.
  • Performance based standards – Require placement of continuous monitoring instruments near sensitive locations for feedback and process control at drill sites for air, light and noise.

While the study identified several problem areas that need to be addressed, Quaranta is quick to point out that the industry and regulatory agencies are already incorporating some of their recommendations.

“We’re seeing more inspection guidelines, more training opportunities for regulatory personnel and industry field inspectors, and better emergency management protocols are being put in place,” said Quaranta. “Our recommendations are already having an impact.”

The study was also recently accepted for publication in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Journal of Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts. The study is currently available online and will be included as part of the journal’s special collection on the topic of hydraulic fracturing for the upcoming July issue. Located in the United Kingdom, the Royal Society of Chemistry is the United Kingdom’s professional body for chemistry and the world’s leading chemistry community.

“Hydraulic fracturing is either currently being used or planned for use around the United States and in a number of other countries to increase the production of natural gas,” explains McCawley. “We wanted to share our findings with not only the people of West Virginia, but also within a broader community of scientists through this current publication with hopes that there will be further discussion of the ideas we present as well as possible suggestions for alternative strategies.”

In 2012, WVU introduced its “Mountains of Excellence” for strategic investment in research areas where potential for growth and substantial return on investment makes sense. One of the initial areas of focus is utilizing shale gas responsibly.

To read the study in its entirety and to see the full list of recommendations, visit http://rsc.li/1lD1dIR.

The West Virginia Water Research Institute has been in existence since 1967 and has served as a statewide vehicle for performing research related to water issues. The Institute is the premier water research center in West Virginia and, within selected fields, an international leader.