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

October 12, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

6 Responses to “Is it OK to refer to this as a ‘WVU study’?”

  1. Ted Boettner says:

    One of the panelists, Thomas Kinnaman, has done an excellent of exposing the pipe-dream economics of Marcellus Shale drilling of two Penn State affiliated authors.

    In a recent peer-reviewed, academic article, Kinnaman said this of the Penn State studies on gas drilling: “If these reports are not widely read, then any harm done is inconsequential. But if institutional affiliation increases the exposure of these reports, then policy makers and other readers may be misguided by questionable economic estimates.”

    His article goes on to say, “overstating the economic impacts to persuade government officials could cause other disruptions in the economy if private investment decisions are based on poorly estimated economic impacts.”1

    I hope Kinnaman get a chance to review the WVU/MU study.

    HT to our sister group, PennBPC

    1. Thomas C. Kinnaman, “The economic impact of shale gas extraction: A review of existing studies,” Ecological Economics 70 (2011) 1243-1249, http://www.elsevier.com/locate/ecolecon (subscription required).

  2. drh says:

    This American Life on academic bias towards fracking:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/440/game-changer

    “Game Changer
    Originally aired 07.08.2011
    A professor in Pennsylvania makes a calculation, to discover that his state is sitting atop a massive reserve of natural gas—enough to revolutionize how America gets its energy. But another professor in Pennsylvania does a different calculation and reaches a troubling conclusion: that getting natural gas out of the ground poses a risk to public health. Two men, two calculations, and two very different consequences. (Transcript) “

  3. Focusing solely on the “keynote” speakers does not accurately capture the balanced perspective that will be offered at the October 27-28 conference. Included on the conference faculty are representatives of three environmental organizations (Environmental Defense Fund, Earthjustice, and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund), as well as other interested stakeholders, such as the land/surface owners. The focus of the conference is a comparative analysis of the regulatory approaches followed in the Marcellus Shale states (OH, WV, NY, and PA), and will feature representatives from the environmental regulatory agencies in those respective states. The conference will also cover the experience in other shale plays around the country (Haynesville, Barnett and Bakken). As far as Senator Manchin being a “huge booster of this particular industry,” I don’t think one can disagree with his statement that shale gas production is “of vital importance for the jobs, for the economy of West Virginia.” The issue the conference will explore is how to balance the clear need to continue to develop the State’s fossil fuel resources in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts. Learning of the regulatory approaches in the surrounding states, as well as in other shale plays around the country, should inform that process and contribute in a meaningful way to the discussion of these issues in West Virginia.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Jamie,

    Thanks for your comment, and for engaging on these issues.

    For those who don’t know, Jamie is director of the WVU law school’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, http://energy.law.wvu.edu/ … He’s got a very strong background in these sorts of issues, if you check out his background here, http://law.wvu.edu/faculty/full_time_faculty/james_m_van_nostrand .

    I guess my question, Jamie, is — if you have two keynote slots, why give one of them to a politician who is generally viewed as being pro-industry and not being a strong supporter of environmental protection and the other to an industry lobbyist? Why not give one of the two keynote slots to someone from one of the citizen or environmental groups?

    You told me that WVU tried to get the EPA regional administrator for the second keynote slot — but when he couldn’t come, you went with an industry person instead. Why not fill that spot with someone from Earthjustice or Environmental Defense Fund?

    Ken.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Here’s the abstract for the paper Ted referenced:

    Recent advances in drilling technology have allowed for the profitable extraction of natural gas from deep underground shale rock formations. Several reports sponsored by the gas industry have estimated the
    economic effects of the shale gas extraction on incomes, employment, and tax revenues. None of these reports has been published in an economics journal and therefore have not been subjected to the peer review process. Yet these reports may be influential to the formation of public policy. This commentary provides written reviews of several studies purporting to estimate the economic impact of gas extraction from shale beds. Due to questionable assumptions, the economic impacts estimated in these reports are very likely overstated.

    Ken.

  6. Good question, Ken. It is always a challenge trying to line speakers up for a conference, and providing appropriate recognition for high-profile speakers. As I mentioned, we have Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice represented at the conference. While I tried to get more representation from the environmental community and environmental regulators, I found — and I know from personal experience in heading up an environmental NGO in New York — that often times they simply do not have the resources and the time to participate in every event. I would have welcomed the participation of some of my friends at the New York State Department of Envrionmental Conservation, for example, the agency that is developing the regulations to govern hydraulic fracturing in New York. NYSDEC personnel are hard-pressed to perform their statutory obligations in the face of repeated budget cuts, however, and couldn’t justify spending a day in West Virginia to attend our conference. I was fortunate to get Stu Gruskin, a former deputy commissioner at NYSDEC, to represent New York’s perspective at the conference. Not surprisingly, the energy industry typically has the resources to be able to participate in these events. It thus becomes a challenge to maintain a balanced perspective in the presentations, given the disparity in financial and staffing resources. I think under the circumstances, we did a fairly decent job of achieving a balanced perspective at the October 27-28 conference, and that WVU College of Law and the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development will play a helpful role in informing the discussion of these issues in West Virginia.

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