West Virginia University (WVU) and the University of Kansas (KU) have collaborated to learn more about produced water from oil and natural gas development, landing a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to advance best practices for handling the byproduct nationwide.

The universities will use the funds to develop better treatment, environmental protection, management and recovery of the fluids. Ultimately, they hope the project will help to establish a national research center focused on oil and gas wastewater.

Co-investigator of the grant and director of WVU’s West Virginia Water Research Institute Paul Ziemkiewicz said there is no nationally focused or coordinated research effort examining produced water and some of the issues it creates. While recycling and reuse of the byproduct has been on the rise in basins across the country, underground injection remains the primary form of disposal. The injection wells have been linked to earthquakes in some parts of the country and they have faced strong public opposition, particularly in areas of the Appalachian Basin.

“It needs to be treated before it can be reused. This project is focused on ways to treat the water, to manage the production process so we have less wastewater to deal with and looking at the impact of water ecosystems when it’s released,” KU professor and the project’s primary investigator Edward Peltier told WVU Today, the university’s house publication. “How much do we treat so it doesn’t have harmful effects?”

A central topic for the project will be how to handle wastewater across the country’s various oil and gas formations. How much production water is produced is a matter of geology. The universities believe they’re a good fit to explore that question given the geological differences of the Kansas plains and the mountainous terrain of West Virginia. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, about 20 billion barrels of water are produced annually during oil and gas extraction across the country.

Both schools already have established field resources that can help drive the research forward. WVU’s Marcellus Shale Energy and Environmental Laboratory, which is supported by DOE, has access to a shale site in Monongalia County where it’s already monitoring water and air quality.