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Ohio Utica Shale

Ohio State researchers find microbes in fracking fluids, brines

By Bob Downing Published: January 8, 2013

From the Columbus Dispatch:

By Spencer Hunt

 

 
 
The Marcellus shale holds a buried bounty of natural gas for humans, but it also might become a residence for microscopic creatures more at home at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.

That’s one early conclusion from two Ohio State University researchers looking for life in the “fracking” fluids and brine that bubble out from freshly drilled shale wells.

Paula Mouser, who is an OSU professor of environmental engineering, and graduate student Maryam Ansari originally set out to see if the fluids contained single-cell microbes known as “archaea” or“extremophiles” for the species that thrive in hostile environments, including underwater thermal vents and volcanoes.

Mouser and Ansari wanted to see whether fracking fluids would bring up such creatures from Marcellus shale, which would suggest that they have lived in the hot, high-pressure rock for millions of years.

Their initial thought was that the archaea live in the shale and digest organic material, excreting natural gas as waste. What they found instead was the DNA fingerprint of bacteria that they suspect hitched a ride in the millions of gallons of fracking water that drillers draw from streams, lakes and reservoirs and pump into the shale.

“The one predominant taxa (groups of similar bacteria species) is highly similar to organisms isolated from the deep ocean,” Mouser said. “Its cousin is involved in decaying dead organic matter on the ocean bottom.”

The pair’s research offers a rare glimpse of life in an extremely remote and harsh environment.

Marcellus shale lies thousands of feet underground and, until recently, was unavailable to scientists curious about what might be alive down there. That changed when drillers started tapping the shale.

More than 5,750 shale gas wells have been drilled and fracked in Pennsylvania since 2009. The process injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture the shale and free trapped gas.

The same process is being used to tap oil and gas in Ohio’s Utica shale. Ohio Department of Natural Resources records show that 196 wells have been drilled since January 2011.

Some of the fracking fluids come back up with the oil and gas. As the fluids dissipate, many wells continue to produce water laden with high concentrations of salt and dissolved metals, called brine.

Most of the fluids are recycled or injected in underground disposal wells. Oil companies are reluctant to part with samples because they contain what the companies consider to be secret recipes of the chemicals used in fracking.

Mouser said the fluid samples used in their analysis came from a single well site in Pennsylvania, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. The location was kept secret.

“We don’t actually know who provided the samples,” Mouser said.

Ansari said the research involved a testing technique that looks for microbe and bacteria biomarkers within the fluid.

“We have these pieces of DNA, and we search to see if there are any similarities to known organisms,” Ansari said. “Then, based on that information, we infer what the organisms we observe in these samples might be doing.”

Oil and gas industry experts have long known that bacteria in fracking water can thrive underground. That’s why fracking fluids include chemicals, called biocides, meant to kill them.

“You don’t want organic growth going on in the fractures,” said Tom Stewart, the vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “It clogs up the flow” of oil and gas.

Mouser said the living conditions in shale are harsh. In addition to concentrated salt water, temperatures can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and there also is immense pressure.

“It’s 500 to 600 times atmospheric pressure,” Mouser said.

Tests initially detected 42 taxa in fracking water that immediately flowed back out of the newly completed well. Over the course of a couple of days, fewer than 25 taxa appeared, suggesting most of the bacteria had died below ground.

Of those bacteria, more than 90 percent belonged to four taxa. Ansari and Mouser said they most closely resemble organisms that digest and decompose organic matter in ocean bottom sediments.

They might never be able to identify exact bacteria species, Mouser said. The bacteria need to be alive to be identified, and that means re-creating the heat and pressure in the lab and supplying the correct organic materials the bacteria use for food.

Further study could help show whether the bacteria were native to the shale or introduced by drillers and if they pose a clogging problem for producing wells.

The researchers presented their findings on Dec. 3 during the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.

They said they hope to continue their research by collecting water samples from a Utica well in Ohio.

Results could be much different from the Marcellus shale, Mouser said. “The Utica shale is deeper. It would be hotter and have higher pressures.”

shunt@dispatch.com

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Utica and Marcellus shale web sites

Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management State agency Web site.

ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. State drilling permits. List is updated weekly.

ODNR Division of Geological Survey.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio State University Extension.

Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Granville-based group that represents 1,500 Ohio energy-related companies.

Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program.

Energy In Depth, a trade group.

Marcellus and Utica Shale Resource Center by Ohio law firm Bricker & Eckler.

Utica Shale, a compilation of Utica shale activities.

Landman Report Card, a site that looks at companies involved in gas and oil leases.FracFocus, a compilation of chemicals used in fracking individual wells as reported voluntarily by some drillers.

Chesapeake Energy Corp,the Oklahoma-based firm is the No. 1 driller in Ohio.

Rig Count Interactive Map by Baker Hughes, an energy services company.

Shale Sheet Fracking, a Youngstown Vindicator blog.

National Geographic's The Great Shale Rush.

The Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide eco-group based in Columbus.

Buckeye Forest Council.

Earthjustice, a national eco-group.

Stop Fracking Ohio.

People's Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio, a grass-roots group in Northeast Ohio.

Concerned Citizens of Medina County, a grass-roots group.

No Frack Ohio, a Columbus-based grass-roots group.

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat by ProPublica, an online journalism site.

Penn State Marcellus Center.

Pipeline, blog from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Marcellus shale drilling.

Allegheny Front, environmental public radio for Western Pennsylvania.