Drilling has started at an experimental site in West Virginia, where researchers will conduct air, noise, occupational safety, health and operations monitoring over the next five years in a first-of-its-kind field study of unconventional natural gas development.

The Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory was established with an $11 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last year to develop and validate new knowledge and technology to improve recovery efficiency and to minimize the environmental impacts of unconventional resource development (see Shale Daily, Jan. 14; Nov. 7, 2014).

Charleston, WV-based Northeast Natural Energy started drilling last Friday at the experimental site in Morgantown near the state's top-drilling counties, including Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler.

Collaborative efforts among West Virginia University, Ohio State University and the DOE are expected to find researchers examining the unconventional drilling process from beginning to end. The well site is in an industrial park, which has prompted concerns from nearby residents and environmental organizations. Leaders of the project, however, have said the site is among the safest in the country.

Since the project was established, researchers have been conducting air, noise, light and water tests at the site to establish benchmarks. Some of that data is already being shared on the project’s website. The West Virginia site is one aspect of the DOE's larger initiative to study unconventional drilling, including another field laboratory in Illinois and several projects that feature lab tests and modeling across the country.