The nearly indefinite and important role of GIS in the Marcellus Play

August 22, 2012
Shale Play

Editor's note: Wheeling native Roger Cottrell is a principal at Cheat Canyon Management Services in Morgantown, W.Va., and an expert in geographic information systems and project management.


The Nearly Indefinite and Important Role of GIS in the Marcellus Play

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During my travels throughout Appalachia, my discussions always lead to natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale play. It is very interesting how much people realize the importance of this energy boom not only in terms of providing needed jobs for economic recovery and protecting the environment, but also the realization that there remain a lot of questions that have not been answered that require research and analysis.

This is especially true in terms of the impact drilling and fracturing activities are having in the day-to-day lives of everyone living in this area. These activities have an impact throughout the economy, communities and environment that will last for decades to come. Geographic information systems is playing and will continue to play a major role in the lives of ordinary citizens for decades to come.

Here are a few examples of how GIS and related geospatial technologies are playing and will continue to play a role in natural gas development in Appalachia:

-- Water management - Drilling and fracking operations require enormous amounts of water from a variety of sources. A majority of this water comes from surface sources that need to be properly managed. Most companies recycle their water as much as possible. The disposal of water can be an issue if companies are disposing of it in the municipal water treatment system. Municipalities treat the water with chlorine, which reacts with the brominated wastewater to create trihalomethanes, a known carcinogen. GIS has a role in the proper management of surface and subsurface water sources as well as the monitoring and analysis of wastewater produced from drilling operations.

-- Infrastructure support -Drilling and fracking operations require hundreds of truckloads of equipment, materials and water. This excess usage of public and private roads has created the need to repairs thousands of miles of road surfaces and storm water systems. GIS will play a major role in helping identify, track and categorize infrastructure projects throughout Appalachia. GIS adds the ability to associate infrastructure problems with specific drilling operations.

-- Property - Spend a few minutes in your local courthouse or municipal building and you will see a small army of landmen conducting research on leases throughout your area. These professionals are locating and analyzing surface and mineral rights to properties they wish to lease or purchase for natural gas development. GIS is used to map and analyze leases by managing multitudes of data in a relational database, including but not limited to; owner, owner address/phone, acreage, adjacent properties, legal description, county, state, township and right-of-way access.

-- Natural resource management - Appalachia is blessed with abundant natural resources. Gas development has visible and non-visible impacts to the natural environment due to surface and sub-surface operations. Examples include the construction of pipelines through a forest/ecosystem, air emissions from drilling operations, and surface water extraction/wastewater production during drilling and fracking operations. All of these operations have various effects on flora and fauna in Appalachia. GIS, coupled with global positioning systems, survey operations and remote sensing technologies (aerial photos/ imagery), provide an accurate and objective assessment to provide decision makers with data and information for proper management of natural resources.

-- Market analysis - One of the first GIS projects I completed as a graduate student at West Virginia University was finding the best location for a new hospital in Annapolis County, Md. Although this was a fictitious scenario, we used live data to find the optimal location for the construction of a new hospital. Increased revenue streams will result with an influx of businesses (e.g. restaurants, banks and insurance agents) and public services agencies (e.g. health clinics, hospitals and waste facilities) that support the population. GIS provides analysis capabilities to locate these new businesses based on available property, access to roads and other critical infrastructure, relationship to similar businesses and access to customers.

-- Tax analysis - Early in my career, I worked at the city of Pittsburgh Planning Office as an information systems analyst. The then-mayor of Pittsburgh requested that I generate a map of all city parcels color coded by their current tax payment status. I established a connection between the city's tax database and the GIS and quickly produced a color-coded map. A parcel colored in green meant paid in full, while a parcel colored in red meant that the property was delinquent and needed to pay taxes. I remember the look on the mayor's face when I unrolled the map on his desk. He looked like I just gave him a map to the fountain of youth. He was overjoyed and asked me to provide him with a map of this type every quarter. The human eye is designed to recognize 255 shades of grey and a multitude of colors. Our brain quickly recognizes patterns and most of us are visual learners in some capacity. GIS is great for quickly generating a thematic or "theme" map for decision makers to quickly assess seemingly complex problems.

-- Environmental monitoring - Soil, air, water (surface and subsurface), flora and fauna require continuous monitoring before, during and long after drilling and fracking operations. Monitoring usually includes some type of regimented sampling whereby samples are sent to a certified laboratory for analysis.

All of the data created during monitoring is normally geo-registered or assigned a location. GIS is well suited to manage this data in a relational database management, analysis and mapping. Private and public organizations throughout Appalachia will be using GIS for environmental monitoring.

-- Emergency management/response - Being prepared and responding to natural and man-made disasters has been highlighted by recent hurricane and oil spill events in the Gulf of Mexico. Closer to home, Hurricane Ivan included torrential downpours in West Virginia causing massive flooding and landslides. Natural gas development in Appalachia includes the transport and use of hundreds of dangerous chemicals and waste products. It is just a matter of time before an accidental spill of release occurs that threatens populations and property. GIS and associated geospatial technologies provide the necessary tools for evaluating these types of emergency situations.

My experience working on the BP oil spill in Louisiana taught me the value of providing spatial information to emergency responders such as the Coast Guard. In a similar situation, I worked at the Emergency Operations Center located on the Savannah River Site in the early part of this decade. A freight train carrying chlorine gas derailed in one of the nearby communities releasing gas that killed and injured many of the local residences. Our GIS team at the EOC quickly responded by providing all of the spatial data we had of the local area, including topographic data illustrating where the gas would settle since it is heavier than air. GIS is a great quick response tool.

-- Public Safety and Health - Although we rarely associate public health and safety issues with an economic boom, stimulating a local or regional economy with extra revenue and various types of human resources poses some negative issues. Problems such as excessive indulgence in vices, influx of people who wish to exploit, protests and other civil issues may result from the influx of additional population. GIS provides law enforcement and health officials with tools to analyze crime, monitor and track illegal activity and track threats to public health.

The above examples of how GIS can be applied in a variety of areas illustrate the need for trained and qualified professionals to perform this complex work. Professionals are needed in information technology, GIS, cartography, database management, professional surveying, project management, public administration, computer and information systems management, public policy, law, global positioning systems field technicians, remote sensing, graphic design and other highly skilled positions. This need provides a great opportunity for academic institutions and private companies to provide the necessary guidance and training to individuals throughout the region.

GIS and associated technologies are here to stay. I will investigate and discuss the above applications of GIS in detail over the next several months focusing on how public and private organizations can benefit from GIS. In addition, these discussions will focus on how individuals interested in GIS can get the necessary training and education in this exciting field.



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