Shale Network initiative focuses on water quality

As the Marcellus Shale boom continues, faculty and researchers in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences are leading a statewide effort to bring more facts to the discussion on fracking.

Called Shale Network, the initiative is focused on assembling data about water quality where hydraulic fracturing is taking place. The fracking process used to tap into the gas formations found deep underground involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the earth, raising questions about the potential impacts on nearby waterways. Concerns include spills of fracturing fluids and poorly constructed wells.

While various groups — state agencies, concerned citizens, universities and private companies — are already conducting water quality testing and gathering data, there continue to be challenges when it comes to storing that data in a format that makes it possible to compare across sources and keeping it in a centralized location that is available to the public.

Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, said the Shale Network is focused on addressing those shortcomings, along with making sure enough data is being collected in the best places to catch any water quality problems caused by natural gas development if and when they do occur.

“By pooling our data and making it accessible, we’ll be in a better position to detect water quality problems if they do occur,” she said. “First, we’ll be able to establish a baseline for water quality. By having water quality testing done before fracking, we’ll be in a much better position to see if there are changes that take place after fracking is done, and if there are any indicators that the two things are related.”

Shale Network was started in 2011 with support from the National Science Foundation. Along with researchers in EMS, it includes faculty and staff from the University of Pittsburgh, Dickinson College and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrological Sciences Inc. The initiative continues to grow, including involving students from State College Area High School and Mountain Ridge High School in Frostburg, Md., as well as researchers and citizen scientists from around the commonwealth.

In their own project, the Frostburg students have been collecting water samples to establish pre-drilling data sets for waterways near potential drilling sites. The State College students were able to analyze that data and use it to learn about the collection and drilling process.

EESI hosted the second Shale Network conference in May 2013, and while Shale Network is currently focused on Pennsylvania, plans include expanding the reach to more of the Marcellus Shale region, which runs from New York to Virginia and holds up to 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

For more information about sustainability initiatives at Penn State, visit www.sustainability.psu.edu.

Last Updated July 23, 2013