The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) has awarded a Pennsylvania-based environmental consulting firm with a contract to coordinate and oversee a wide-ranging study for the analysis of methane in groundwater samples.

The study will aim to establish a “highly specific consensus standard for the analysis of light gases in groundwater,” both before oil and gas wells are drilled and after they’re completed, said Environmental Standards Inc., which won the MSC contract. While the firm noted that there are several published analytical methods for the analysis of methane in aquifers, it said there is no method that has been published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or widely adopted.

For the published procedures that do exist, the firm said these do not provide the kind of specificity needed for uniform and reliable results.

“Given the substantial increase in oil and gas exploration on the shale plays throughout the U.S., the analysis of dissolved gases to establish a baseline comparison with post-completion groundwater samples has become increasingly important for regulatory and legal purposes,” the firm said. “With the growing number of commercial and regulatory laboratories performing dissolved gas analysis, significant differences have been routinely noted during split sampling investigations.”

Loren Anderson, special projects manager for the MSC, told NGI’s Shale Daily that the study will be the first of its kind in the country. He called its price tag “substantial,” adding that it’s among the group’s biggest projects this year.

Methane in groundwater has proved to be a thorny issue in oil and gas producing states across the country. In the Appalachian Basin, where it has become particularly charged, with the rapid evolution of the Utica Shale and the volume of shale drilling in the Marcellus Shale, debates have unfolded in some areas about whether the migration of methane into water wells is naturally-occurring or caused by horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

No clear consensus has emerged. A multi-year review by the EPA that was to assess the threats posed by fracking to drinking water and air quality in five unconventional drilling areas, including the Marcellus and Bakken shales, was postponed last year until 2016 (see Shale Daily, Jan. 7, 2013) .

The U.S. Geological Survey recently said it found naturally-occurring dissolved methane in the wells of several households throughout northeast Pennsylvania (see Shale Daily, Aug. 11; June 21, 2013). But high-profile incidents like those in Dimock, PA, where fracking was initially thought to have contaminated wells, and another in Wyoming, where chemicals associated with the process were blamed for contamination, have only stirred concerns and fueled debate further (see Shale Daily, July 24, 2013; Dec. 9, 2011).

Environmental Standards said the goal of the study will be to identify critical variables that influence commercial laboratories’ analyses of dissolved gases. The firm said a number of state and federal regulatory bodies across the country will either be participating in the study or following it closely.

“There are documented standards for many light dissolved gases out there, but how do you capture a sample, what kind of bottle do you use and how do you handle that sample in a lab where it’s sensitive to the atmosphere?” Anderson said. “We’re looking to really tighten up those standards for an apples-to-apples comparison when you take a sample in the field.”

The study will examine the practices of 10-15 private laboratories across the country, as well as those at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The private labs participating are MSC members and Anderson said the coalition hopes to involve others.

A final report is expected to be released by the end of 1Q2015 that will describe the major factors influencing the differences in methane analyses across the country.

Ultimately, Anderson said, MSC hopes to gather enough documentation through the study so that the standards it helps to establish can be validated through the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). ASTM approval would allow for more labs to apply for accreditation and wide-spread implementation of the study’s findings.