As the Appalachian Region feels the impact of the burgeoning shale-energy industry, a consortium of researchers and industrial partners led by West Virginia University, with the assistance of The Ohio State University, will conduct the first-ever long-term, comprehensive field study of a natural resource that has changed the country’s – and the world’s – energy supply.
The five-year, $11 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy will allow the research team to create and manage the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory, a field site and dedicated research laboratory at the Morgantown Industrial Park.

Together with the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and Northeast Natural Energy – a Charleston-based private oil and natural gas company that owns and operates the site – the lab will engage a unique and diverse team of geoscientists, hydrologists, engineers, ecologists, social scientists and public health professionals.  The team will identify and demonstrate technologies required for best practices in environmentally responsible shale development, from drilling to completion through production.

Additionally, the lab will offer real-world education and training for undergraduate and graduate students to address the complex technical, environmental and social issues surrounding unconventional energy development and production.

Tim Carr
Timothy Carr

“To date, there has been no comprehensive long-term field study that addresses baseline measurements, subsurface development and environmental monitoring with unconventional resource development,” said Timothy Carr, WVU’s Marshall Miller professor of geology, principal investigator of the award and director of the lab.

“No other study can replicate and validate results with subsequent drilling and completion events. The only way to integrate the three is to conduct long-term research on a single site, which is what we are going to be able to do.”

Ohio State will work with WVU to provide support of subsurface scientific investigations of the geology and microbiology from samples taken in the drill hole, along with guidance and support for the environmental work at the site.

“This cooperative study will maximize the energy and environmental research strengths of both universities,” said Jeff Daniels, director of the Ohio State Subsurface Energy Resource Center and primary investigator for Ohio State. “And the study will form the foundation for a lasting partnership between WVU and Ohio State in energy and environmental research and education.”

“The DOE/NETL is excited about this new partnership and the opportunity to demonstrate cutting-edge science and advanced technologies to ensure the prudent development of the nation’s shale gas resources in an efficient and environmentally safe fashion,” said Jared Ciferno, director of NETL’s Strategic Center for Natural Gas and Oil. “It is envisioned that this partnership will be the first of many long-term, field-based opportunities that will bring science and technology to the forefront in shaping our nation’s energy future.”

“We have deep roots in West Virginia and it is our goal to help any way we can,” said Mike John, chief executive officer of Northeast Natural Energy. “Our participation in the this project is driven by our desire to help improve science, enhance technology and expand understanding of the natural gas industry. The Morgantown Industrial Park site offers a convenient location for researchers and students to conduct their studies and we look forward to working together with them on this project.”

“Northeast Natural Energy works to responsibly develop resources in an environmentally sensitive way as evidenced by their operations in the Morgantown Industrial Park and elsewhere in Monongalia County,” Carr said. “This is a great partnership, and we look forward to getting the project underway.”

Shale gas is part of a new category of natural resources called “unconventional oil and gas.” As recently as 20 years ago these resources were thought to be unobtainable, but recent breakthroughs provided new technologies that allow them to be accessed.

Shale gas is natural gas that is trapped inside formations of shale – sedimentary rock found deep underground. To release it, shale-gas producers drill a deep vertical well and then use a combination of technologies to target horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) – which uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to crack subsurface rock and create fissures that release natural gas.

Shale gas has been heralded as a “game changer” for energy markets, particularly in the United States, where energy resources have been in decline and where shale-gas reserves are plentiful. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2000, shale gas production represented only 1 percent of American natural gas production, but by 2035, shale gas will represent nearly half.

Additionally, recent news reports state that fracking and other unconventional techniques have already doubled North American natural gas reserves to three quadrillion cubic feet, which is nearly equal to 500 billion barrels of oil, or almost double the crude inventory of Saudi Arabia – the world’s top oil producer.

“The economic, national security and environmental benefits to shale-gas development are significant,” Carr explains. “But that growth must be managed in a responsible manner, which will require comprehensive scientific data and measurement.”

The Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory will allow the team to address critical gaps of knowledge of the characterization, basic subsurface science, and completion and stimulation strategies that enable more efficient resource recovery from fewer wells with reduced environmental impact.

The primary objectives of the project include providing a long-term research site with an existing well and documented production and environment baseline from two previously completed wells.

A dedicated scientific-observation well will be used to collect detailed subsurface data and to monitor and test technologies in additional wells to be drilled periodically over the project lifetime.

The site also offers a unique opportunity to enable an open, collaborative and integrated program of science and technology development and testing to minimize environmental impacts while maximizing economic benefits.

“This is a unique collaboration between the public and private sectors that will provide real-world public health and environmental benefit to society,” said Fred King, WVU vice president for research. “The lab will be an easy-to-access field laboratory and will provide ideal testing conditions for researchers to make significant gains in our development of best practices for the responsible development of unconventional oil and gas.”

In addition to Carr, researchers from the following areas at WVU are participating in the study.

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 WVU’s shale-gas research can be found at the University’s new shale-gas website. More information about WVU’s overall energy research is available on the WVU Energy Institute website.