A new $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant is helping a cross-disciplinary team of Pennsylvania State University researchers study the possible environmental effects of Marcellus Shale development by examining methane concentrations in the state’s private water wells, rivers and streams.

Geoscientists from the university have long studied methane concentrations near shale gas drilling sites, putting together large datasets from samples taken by researchers and government agencies, among others. The College of Information Sciences Technology is using data-mining techniques and developing computer models to look at those concentrations and see how they relate to other factors such as distance from unconventional wells and faults.

While methane occurs naturally in waterways, the research will give a better indication of how those concentrations occur and why. The computer models and data-mining techniques are being used to analyze where methane concentrations are higher than they’re expected to be near natural sources like faults. Geoscientists can focus on those hot spot areas once they’ve been identified.

The researchers believe their work could help inform how unconventional development, older wells and orphaned and abandoned wells affect the environment. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and others have said there are likely hundreds of thousands of plugged and unplugged abandoned wells that could be leaking in the state.

The NSF’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education program provided funding, while the U.S. Geological Survey and the DEP provided additional data for the project.