The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it was following lawmakers' wishes when it awarded a $150,000 grant to a nonprofit organization for a report on handling waste from oil and natural gas drilling in the state, and to develop an online training module addressing erosion issues.

DEP spokesman Eric Shirk confirmed to NGI's Shale Daily that the agency had awarded the grant to Shale Alliance for Energy Research Pennsylvania (SAFER-PA). An internal DEP document showed the grant was for "a life cycle analysis of waste challenges related to shale development," and for creating "a web-based training module for erosion and sedimentation general permits associated with oil and gas development."

"This grant does exist," Shirk said Friday. "It's not complete yet; it's not signed; no money has been sent and no study has been done. But it is in the works.

"They're going to be looking at waste trends from natural gas drilling, how much drill cuttings and water is produced. They're going to try to do some forecasting for the future -- what we can expect, landfill capacity, things like that. We're also going to look at having them involved in some training for us to increase efficiencies with some of the [online] stuff."

SAFER-PA Chairman Patrick Findle told NGI’s Shale Daily that the organization hopes to have both projects completed in the spring of 2015.

“We see our role as advancing solutions, generating needed gap-filling science and providing education in shale gas development,” Findle said. “We are focused on advancing the safe and sustainable development of Pennsylvania’s shale energy resources.

“We believe there is real value in public-private partnerships, with all stakeholders working together to generate comprehensive research results and insights that inform safe, sustainable shale development. By leveraging funding and working collaboratively much more can be accomplished than could be done on an individual basis.”

SAFER-PA's board of directors includes faculty from Drexel University, the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University, and an industry representative from a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell plc. The group’s advisory committee includes the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

"I wouldn't describe SAFER as an industry group at all," Shirk said. "The legislature directed us to do this with the budget, to have an independent study. And this truly is an independent study. They're a nonprofit with people from environmental groups, academia and some industry all involved."

The internal DEP document -- specifically, a Request for Approval, Sole Source Award of Grant Funds -- was dated May 6 and came from the agency's Bureau of Oil and Gas Planning and Program Management. It also revealed that on May 1, DEP submitted a waiver request over the grant to the state's Office of the Budget, meaning the grant would not be subject to competitive bidding.

In justifying the waiver, DEP said SAFER-PA "is unique in that it is the only known research organization that is comprised of both private and public entities, including three separate Pennsylvania-based research universities as well as industry organizations with a specific focus of conducting scientific research and development of shale related projects associated with Pennsylvania's oil and gas resources."

Shirk repeated that sentiment. "This has been a deliberative process. It is a sole source contract, but it was done legally and properly. This group is uniquely qualified to handle the scope of the project that was dictated to us by the Pennsylvania legislature, and so that's why it's occurred this way."

The grant appears in the state budget for 2013-14. In appropriations to the DEP, a single line entry specifies that "$150,000 shall be used for independent research regarding natural gas drilling." Shirk said an additional $150,000 grant was included in the 2014-15 budget, but it was vetoed by Gov. Tom Corbett.

"The $150,000 from 2013-14 budget is still in play, and that's what we're working on now," Shirk said, adding that there was no timetable for the final agreement to be signed. "There is a study being developed, and there is a grant agreement in place, but it hasn't been signed and it hasn't been executed."

The SAFER-PA website currently has one report available for download, the "Pennsylvania Water Well Handbook," a 36-page report completed in January. It also has links to 12 research papers conducted by others, most of them from the oil and gas industry.

PEC President Davitt Woodwell said he has had scant contact with SAFER-PA and emphasized that he does not speak for them. But he added that the PEC pushes for changes in regulatory language, and has been "trying to figure out how to push the limits to really make unconventional shale gas extraction the least impactful," and said engaging with groups like SAFER-PA is a necessary part of that strategy.

"One of the things that interests us about SAFER, and similar projects, is getting research done that is going to be out there that pushes the limits," Woodwell told NGI's Shale Daily on Friday. "If [an oil and gas company] was doing the research, they might not put [changes] in immediately because it's not as cost effective for them. But if it's the right thing to do, how do you get that stuff out there?

"We don't have the time, the bandwidth or, frankly, the expertise to be that involved in the technical research side. But what they're doing -- trying to do research to find technical ways to do it better -- is something that appeals to us. Somebody needs to be out there doing it."