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DOE: New Technology to Remotely Monitor Wells in Marcellus Shale

A new technology to remotely monitor conditions at gas wells in the Marcellus Shale play to ensure compliance with environmental regulations has been developed through a research partnership funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), according to DOE's Office of Fossil Energy (FE).

The technology -- which involves three wireless monitoring modules to measure volatile organic compounds, dust, light and sound -- currently is being tested at a Marcellus Shale drilling site in Washington County, PA, just south of Pittsburgh.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is investigating the impact of drilling in the Marcellus Shale play, reportedly is also focusing its probe on Washington County, where there has been a flurry of drilling activity.

The remote gas well monitoring technology was developed by Michael McCawley, a research associate professor in West Virginia University's (WVU) Department of Community Medicine, as part of the National Energy Technology Laboratory's Regional University Alliance for Energy Technology Innovation (NETL-RUA). NETL is the research laboratory for FE.

The technology makes it possible to remotely monitor shale gas well drilling sites in areas where the terrain typically hinders monitoring and the lack of nearby power and phone lines makes traditional monitoring difficult, the FE said. It noted that remote monitoring is critical in certain areas, such as West Virginia, which has more than 1,400 Marcellus Shale gas wells and permits have been issued for 1,200 more.

Although the number of possible monitors that can be networked is virtually unlimited, the remote monitoring system at the Washington County site consists of three wireless monitoring modules, FE said. Each module consists of a radio transceiver, a 12-volt battery-powered monitoring device and a battery, all encased in a bright orange box, FE said.

A two-foot by five-foot solar panel maintains the battery charge, even on cloudy days. A base station module, which houses a notebook-sized computer with a cell phone model, receives data from the monitoring devices and facilitates the remote monitoring, which can be accessed from a desktop computer at WVU, according to FE.

Prior to the drilling effort in Washington County, WVU had been testing the system for the past year. The tests demonstrated the system's ability to be a cost-effective, portable, user-friendly, off-the-shelf technology applicable to a variety of monitoring projects. One major company, which FE did not name, has already signaled an interest in the technology.

NETL has been at the forefront of efforts to develop technologies associated with shale gas extraction, monitoring and environmental protection, according to FE. It has historically collaborated with industry to advance horizontal drilling techniques by drilling the first-ever Appalachian Basin direction shale well, as well as introducing techniques such as hydraulic fracturing to eastern shales. NETL also has addressed environmental concerns by studying air emissions at drilling sites and other environmental issues.

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