Gas drilling in the newly tapped Marcellus Shale is an
economic boon for some and an environmental mess for others.
But in between these two positions are researchers like Paul
Ziemkiewicz and Jen Fulton.
They’re environmental scientists at West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute and they’re trying to find a better, more
environmentally sound way to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale
“Marcellus Shale gas development in West Virginia is going
to explode over the next couple of years that is the rate of gas development,
the size of the reserve; it’s just going to be a very big new industry for the
state,” said Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute. “Dealing
with the water issue is something we need to do up front rather than wait till
we have to play catch up and we’ve really got some problems.”
Companies can now drill in Marcellus shale because of a
relatively new technique called hydraulic fracturing where water is forced down
into a gas well; the shale is fractured from the water pressure and sand is
used to prop open the cracks so the natural gas can escape.
Only about 20 percent of the water used for this process comes
back to the surface, and it’s laden with salt, chemicals and metals that make
it harmful to waterways.
Ziemkiewicz says the filter system they’re testing would not
clean the water so that it could be returned to waterways but he says the water
would be clean enough for drillers to reuse it.
“You just can’t inject return water right back into the next
frac job because it has too much suspended solids which would plug up all those
fissures that we’re trying to make in hydrofracking and at the same time that
would decrease the life of that particular the well,” Ziemkiewicz said.
Jen Fulton, program coordinator with the Water Research
Institute, says companies are interested in the research because they’re spending
a lot of money trucking the water to underground injection site or special
“We’ve gotten a lot of enthusiasm from the industry because
they want to be able to reuse the water onsite. They, at this point, need to
collect fresh water and bring it to the next site they go to so if they could
just use the water they already have, it would really help,” Fulton
“And the reason that we like this Filtersure technology is
one, it already works; two, it requires extremely low maintenance and it’s a
self flushing filter that automatically back flushes itself and operates on hydraulic
pressure so it’s very suitable to bring into a remote site like a drilling
operation,” added Ziemkiewicz.
Ziemkiewicz says the system would also help preserve water
resources because drillers would not have to pull as much water from local
streams and rivers and there’s less chance that the used water, which is full
of salt and chemicals, would end up polluting those waterways.
“We’ve spent the last, I don’t know, since 1970 and the
passage of the Clean Water Act, getting rivers like the Monongahela back to
life again and they used to be perfectly dead because of mine drainage,”
Ziemkiewicz said. “Well, now we’ve got them alive again and they’re supporting
fisheries and people can use that water for economic development. We can’t afford
to let it degrade again to where it’s no longer an asset.”
The three-year study is in its first year. The research is supported
by the U.S. Department of Energy.