Sustained Outrage

Is it OK to refer to this as a ‘WVU study’?

Earlier this week, West Virginia University President James Clements announced during his State of the University address that WVU was forming a new research center to work on Marcellus Shale drilling issues.

It’s interesting then, that one yet-to-be completed “WVU study” is being touted already as proof that drilling does not have anything to do with methane ending up in groundwater supplies.  The website Marcellus Drilling News reported:

Dr. Shikha Sharma, an assistant professor at West Virginia University and the lead researcher of a new WVU study looking at the source of methane found in water supplies (see this MDN story), says those who think that hydraulic fracturing is the cause of methane found in their water supply may be wrong. And she can prove it—scientifically.

That post was apparently based on a Wheeling paper story that reported:

Those who believe their drinking water wells may be contaminated with methane released by natural gas fracking may be wrong, according to a West Virginia University professor.

“The source of methane gas can range from active or inactive deep coal mines, landfills, gas storage fields or microbial gas generated in a shallow subsurface,” said assistant professor Shikha Sharma, noting that dissolved methane gas already exists in groundwater where there is no shale gas drilling.

“As a scientist, it is my job to stay focused on the scientific perspective of this study while staying neutral on the political and social issues associated with it,” she added.

But the story also reported:

With the jury still out on whether fracking can release methane into groundwater, Sharma continues her study. It is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey, provided through the West Virginia Water Research Institute. This money allows Sharma and her graduate student, Michon Mulder, to gather and test water samples from groundwater wells in the Monongahela River watershed.

The study will allow the researchers to construct a picture of existing methane gas sources in the area, which could then be used to identify dissolved methane releases associated with Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

“There are some concerns associated with higher levels of dissolved methane,” said Sharma. “The levels of dissolved methane higher than 28 milligrams per liter are considered potentially flammable. Because dissolved methane already exists in some of our samples, we need to figure out where the actual sources of this dissolved methane gas are located.

“It is important to understand exactly how much methane exists in the groundwater now and what sources it comes from, so that unbiased decisions can be made regarding the potential and real impacts of hydrofracking on our water sources in the future,” she added.

Interestingly, here’s what the Department of Energy’s task force on natural gas drilling had to say on the methane contamination issue:

Methane leakage from producing wells into surrounding drinking water wells, exploratory wells, production wells, abandoned wells, underground mines, and natural migration is a greater source of concern. The presence of methane in wells surrounding a shale gas production site is not ipso facto evidence of methane leakage from the fractured producing well since methane may be present in surrounding shallow methane deposits or the result of past conventional drilling activity.

However, a recent, credible, peer-reviewed study documented the higher concentration of methane originating in shale gas deposits (through isotopic abundance of C-13 and the presence of trace amounts of higher hydrocarbons) into wells surrounding a producing shale production site in northern Pennsylvania. The Subcommittee recommends several studies be commissioned to confirm the validity of this study and the extent of methane migration that may take place in this and other regions.

Once Sharma’s work is finished, will the resulting report by considered a “WVU study”? We still await answers to our follow-up questions for university publicist John Bolt to be able to figure out such matters, given WVU’s efforts to distance itself from important faculty research.

And formation of this new WVU program on Marcellus drilling makes it worth revisiting a story by former Gazette reporter Alison Knezevich about another WVU effort on such issues:

Critics of a West Virginia University initiative to teach communities about Marcellus Shale drilling say the program is biased because it gets funding from the natural gas industry.

The Sierra Club of West Virginia contends that the program, run by the university’s Extension Service, doesn’t give participants enough information about the environmental damage caused by drilling.

The program received funding from three energy companies: Chesapeake, Dominion and EQT. Dominion and Chesapeake gave $50,000 each. EQT contributed $25,000.

That story included these remarks from Corky DeMarco, a gas industry spokesman:

No good deed goes unpunished. If the Sierra Club wants to train people on their way of doing things, or windmills or whatever the hell they want to do, tell them to put up the money.

Interestingly, in two weeks, the WVU College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development is hosting an event called “Drilling Down on Regulatory Challenges.”  WVU describes the event his way:

Drilling Down on Regulatory Challenges: Balancing Preservation and Profitability in the Development of Shale Gas Resources promises an unbiased and informative exploration of key topics that face the public, industry and policy makers across the nation regarding the responsible and practical regulation of shale gas production.

The event will include some panel participants who offer diverse views on these issues. But if you look closely at the scheduled agenda, you’ll see that they have two keynote speaker slots.

One of the keynotes will be delivered by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is clearly a huge booster of this particular industry.  The other keynote will come from Dave McCurdy, a former Oklahoma congressman who is now president of the American Gas Association, an industry lobby group.