Ensuring that thousands of Marcellus shale drilling sites comply with environmental regulations is a gargantuan task that one West Virginia University researcher is working to make as simple as checking a computer monitor from the office.

In West Virginia alone, more than 1,400 Marcellus shale natural gas wells exist along the ridges and valleys stretching from Hancock County in the State’s northern panhandle to McDowell County in the heart of the southern coal fields. Drilling permits have been issued for another 1,200 and the count keeps climbing.

Often, the terrain makes the sites difficult to work in, and the lack of nearby power and phone lines makes them impossible to monitor using traditional systems.

But for Michael McCawley, remote gas wells are as close as the computer keyboard in his office thanks to solar power and cell phones.

McCawley, interim chair of the Department of Environmental Health in WVU’s developing School of Public Health, has placed three wireless monitoring modules – one upwind, one downwind, and one crosswind – at a test site in Washington County, PA, where a Marcellus well is about to be drilled. He is interested in measuring dust and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, as well as light and sound coming from the site.

For the past year, he has been testing the wireless system and gathering background data before any drilling activity begins.

Each module includes a radio transceiver, a 12-volt, battery-powered monitoring device and a battery sheltered in a bright orange case. A 2-foot-by-5-foot solar panel keeps the battery fully charged even on cloudy days.

A base station module which houses a small, notebook-sized computer with cell phone modem receives the data from the monitoring modules.

Each case is small enough to be hauled on an all-terrain vehicle and handled by an individual worker.

“Set it and forget it. Let it do its job,” said McCawley.

Untethered from phone and power lines, the monitors easily can be placed between the source of possible emissions and the “receptor” – a school, hospital or community – that may be in the path of any potential pollution.

The wireless system wings data from the test site to a website server that McCawley accesses with a few keystrokes at his desktop computer in his office in Morgantown.

“The radio transceivers can send data up to 15 miles away, as the crow flies. They work by line of site,” McCawley explained.

No cell phone access? “Simply daisy chain the radio transceivers in the base stations along ridges until you get somewhere that has a cell phone signal,” said McCawley who has deployed a similar system at Coopers Rock State Forest nine miles east of Morgantown.

“Now you can monitor where it makes the most sense technically. Also, because the system is so portable, it can be rapidly deployed even in emergencies,” he said.

“The system is designed to be cheap, portable, off-the-shelf, and easy to use in a wide variety of situations. Plug and play,” he said.

McCawley expects each module to cost around $1,200 while the monitors in them could range, “from a couple hundred dollars to five or six thousand depending on the bells and whistles you want to add. In terms of cost and range, our system is more advanced than anything else. One manufacturer wanted $1,000 per radio transceiver that had only a little more than half a mile range.”

A biologist also trained as an engineer, the sixty-something scientist has been at the forefront of air pollution and occupational health for more than three decades. From the ash-laden air of Mount St. Helens during its massive eruption in 1980 to the oil fires in Kuwait during the First Gulf War in 1991, McCawley has been on the scene monitoring air quality. For a man who likes to be where the action is, the Marcellus shale hits home.

“Energy can be developed in an environmentally sound manner and that involves quality control. Quality control requires monitoring. We need to give industry the right tools to control this thing.

“Companies could see a lot of benefits from the system. They could monitor their sites 24-7 to detect problems early when they are easier to handle. And they could promote good community relations by making the data publicly available on their own websites. In fact, Chevron has shown some interest in the technology,” said McCawley.

The project is part of a larger effort of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. NETL is the DOE’s single national laboratory devoted to fossil energy research. One part of the lab’s research portfolio is to assess the environmental impacts of shale exploration, drilling and production.

The NETL has teamed with five regional universities including WVU to create the NETL-Regional University Alliance through which McCawley’s research is being funded. NETL-RUA is one of the major activities of WVU’s Advanced Energy Initiative, which was established to foster research needed to ensure that the development of energy is also environmentally sustainable.



304.293.6038; tkwafle@mail.wvu.edu

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.