But some students and faculty members are already demonstrating expertise that can be useful to the shale gas industry and to communities where wells are being drilled.
Last school year, members of the Ladies of Safety student group toured a WPX Energy drilling site in Derry Township, Westmoreland County. From left: faculty advisor Laura Helmrich-Rhodes, Christina Deitman ’12, Danielle Anna, Kiley Walker ’12, and Erica Crossland. [Photo: WPX Energy]
Since 2011, Brian Okey, a Geography and Regional Planning faculty member, has been supervising students monitoring the quality of water in the Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County. The reservoir is a drinking water source for about 130,000 people in Westmoreland, Armstrong, and Indiana counties.
Marcellus shale gas wells are being drilled near the reservoir on land leased from the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, but Okey said the monitoring also looks at the effects on the water from agriculture, coal mining, and nearby highways.
“Projects such as this offer students an excellent opportunity to do research in the public interest,” he said.
While the Beaver Run project fits well with the skills of his department, Okey said the expertise of the Chemistry Department is crucial for the water analysis. The municipal authority had done some water sampling previously at the reservoir on a limited basis.
“They were looking for certain parameters that were telltale of water quality, such as nitrates or chlorides,” said Chemistry faculty member Nathan McElroy '94. “When they contracted with us, they were interested in a few more parameters that they didn't have the ability to test and even ones that could be, if found in higher levels, indicative of a problem.”
The samples come from all around the reservoir, even its tributaries upstream, McElroy said. “Some of them are very far away from the drill pads. We also started sampling before any fracking started.” Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing to release the gas from the shale rock.
So far, according to McElroy, the sampling and monitoring have not raised any alarms. The data is available for public viewing at the Beaver Run Reservoir website.
A few graduate and undergraduate students have been helping with the chemical analysis, some as a project for independent study, some for an hourly wage.
For nearly two years, Geoscience faculty member Katherine Farnsworth and her students have been monitoring water quality in some Indiana County streams with the Evergreen Conservancy and the Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corps, two volunteer organizations. They have been monitoring the impact abandoned coal mines and, more recently, gas wells have on the streams. The volunteers and students visit the streams every two weeks to retrieve information collected on instruments called dataloggers.
“Those dataloggers are recording just the temperature of the water, the water depth, and total dissolved solids, which technically is measuring conductivity,” Farnsworth said.
The information gleaned by the dataloggers could be used to alert the state's Department of Environmental Resources if something irregular is detected.
“The question is, what is irregular?” Farnsworth asked. “And that's what I'm trying to understand—what's happening on an everyday basis and seasonal pattern. I'm using that data to try to understand the natural background character of these streams.” Detecting even a trickle of pollution would be difficult if the background levels were not known.
Another area involved in Marcellus shale exploration is the university's Institute for Mine Mapping, Archival Procedures, and Safety. The institute has about 21,400 digitized maps of old and abandoned coal mines, predominantly around Western Pennsylvania, in an online, searchable database.
IMAPS Director Robert Wilson '89, M'93 said drillers have been consulting the database to learn if abandoned coal mines exist where they want to drill for natural gas.
A second IMAPS database can be used to support the state's pre-drilling permitting process and is being developed with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Wilson said. About 35 students assist him in managing the databases.
For a decade, Laura Helmrich-Rhodes '88, M'93, of the Safety Sciences Department, has been an instructor for the 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration training program required of workers going onto natural gas drilling pads. She said the incidence of fatalities and injuries at gas and oil drilling sites is not greater than in other industries.
“It is dangerous, but it is certainly not the most dangerous work in the state,” she said.
In addition to helping develop the university's two-day workshops on Marcellus exploration, Helmrich-Rhodes is involved in making IUP's curriculum more responsive to the needs of students preparing to work in the drilling industry. She has developed two three-credit courses that, once approved, will be open to students in any major.
And, while internships are required of all Safety Sciences majors, the gas and oil sectors offer more internship opportunities than other industries, according to Helmrich-Rhodes. Some petrochemical companies have been willing to take IUP students at the end of their sophomore year and allow them to work with the company during a summer.
“They're great to have in class” when they return, she said. “They have all these other experiences they can bring to the classroom.”
With that level of student preparation and the faculty's service as a resource on Marcellus shale, Helmrich-Rhodes believes the university will play an important role in the future of shale gas in the region.
“In academia, we have procedures, solid research and activities. I think that's where government is going to get the best information,” she said. “It will be nice for us to have a positive impact on the way this plays out.
“Particularly for Safety Sciences, I think our graduates have an opportunity to mold this industry in protecting employees from those safety and environmental health hazards.”