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Boom Without the Bust: Ohio University's 'Shale Innovation Project' Researches Sustainable Natural Gas Development in Appalachian Ohio

Ohio's coal-burning legacy has, like many states in Appalachia, dimmed in recent decades.

With a rising reliance on natural gas as a fuel source, states like Ohio are increasingly depending on energy experts to chart the resource's economic impact, in the hopes of preventing another energy 'bust' in the already economically impoverished region.

Fossil fuels like coal and natural gas are notorious for their 'boom-and-bust' production cycles, which can result in economic instability and hardship for communities that depend on the finite extraction of resources for their livelihoods.

According to Voinovich School’s Master of Science in Environmental Studies candidate Jonathan Norris, understanding opportunities for sustainable development in oil and gas production is important in considering this valuable energy resource – especially in eastern Ohio. Norris' research looks to, "leverage as much of the 'boom' – the positive parts – and mitigate the worst parts of the 'bust.'"

Appalachian Ohio geographically overlaps with prime Marcellus and Utica shale formation real estate – one of the main reasons natural gas fracturing (or 'fracking') has accelerated in parts of Ohio in recent years.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Ohio was nearly 19 times greater in 2016 than in 2011, with almost two-thirds of gross withdrawals from shale gas wells alone.

Norris' thesis work is in conjunction with an Ohio University-funded research initiative called the Shale Innovation Project. The project, a three-year interdisciplinary program supported by the Ohio University Innovation Strategy, combines faculty, staff and student researchers from the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The $1.3 million initiative supports OHIO expertise in areas such as economic and public policy, air and gas monitoring, and electrochemistry, among other related fields. Together, the group aims to address the complex economic, social, environmental and technical questions associated with shale development in Ohio, while also addressing impacts from the pending shale industry bust.

Throughout the entire Appalachian region, the increase in shale gas production since 2010 has spurred development of new midstream infrastructure, including pipelines and natural gas processing plants, according to a seperate analysis from the EIA. This midstream infrastructure – pipelines and transportation – gets the resources from the ground into refineries.

"We're focused on the midstream," Norris says, "because that's where we're at in Ohio – that's where the industry is in Ohio, the stage of development."

The Shale Innovation Project, in its second year, utilizes the skills of faculty and researchers campus-wide to achieve the goals of the initiative.

Dr. David Bayless, director of the Ohio Coal Research Center and Gerald Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, are leading research teams working to enhance efficiency of the shale gas recovery process. Bayless also directs weekly meetings that convene the many students assisting on the project.

Dr. Daniel Karney, an Assistant Professor of Economics and a member of the Shale Innovation Project, has led a community impact survey for the grant initiative. Building off a previous survey from 2013, researchers surveyed elected officials in Appalachian Ohio counties to find out how oil and gas have impacted their local economies, workforce, education and housing, among other factors.

Dr. Gilbert Michaud, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Voinovich School, is finalizing an economic impact analysis for the Shale Innovation Project, to model the impact that the oil and gas industry has in Ohio.

His colleague, Michael J. Zimmer, an Executive in Residence at the Voinovich School and Russ College of Engineering, is also involved in the Shale Innovation Project. Zimmer's contributions to the project include work on a set of wealth retention papers, which examine possible policy and financing options – like a severance tax or a permanent trust fund – to maximize the oil and gas industry's positive impact in the economic region over the long-term.

Another way that the Shale Innovation Project engages stakeholders is through a webinar series.

The next webinar, 'Methane Regulations: Federal, State and Local Trends', moderated by Zimmer, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 18 from 12:00-1:30 p.m.

Register for the webinar online or email Elissa Welch to find out more information on the project and its energy-related research.