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CLEAR is an endeavor to create a consortium of experts interested in building and propagating activities related to the assessment of the potential impact of industrial activities on the environment, as well as the creation of new solutions to mitigate problems associated with these activities.
Recently, we launched the Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation (CLEAR) organization at U.T. Arlington (http://clear.uta.edu) to the public. CLEAR is an endeavor to create a consortium of experts interested in building and propagating activities related to the assessment of the potential impact of industrial activities on the environment, as well as the creation of new solutions to mitigate problems associated with these activities. CLEAR is a vehicle for academic and industrial collaboration. It is designed to bring together individuals from academia, private consultants, and industrial partners with common interests. Our combined expertise is used to generate scientific data in areas of research where such data have been lacking and to develop focused technologies and methods that can advance environmental analysis and remediation processes.
CLEAR originated from our past and current efforts to assess the potential impacts of unconventional oil and gas (UOG) extraction activities on groundwater quality. In 2011, we began sampling water wells throughout the Barnett Shale geological formation in north Texas. Regulating bodies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do not monitor water quality in private wells unless they serve 25 or more people. We found that research focused on assessment of water quality in regions where a large amount of UOG extraction was being carried out was sorely lacking. For an industry that has steadily grown to make the United States a leading country in fossil fuel production, we saw an opportunity to contribute scientific data to help better understand whether individuals in close proximity to UOG operations should have any concern about its effect on their property and health. Our initial study, the results of which were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in 2013 (1), was funded solely through personal and discretionary funds, so as to avoid any perceptions of bias associated with outcomes. From that point, we solidified our intentions to pursue additional studies.
A mainstay of our operations has been the development of a suite of analytical methodologies, which are primarily targeted at assessing water quality. These efforts have been largely aided by a partnership between Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Inc., and U.T. Arlington to establish the Shimadzu Institute for Research Technologies (www.uta.edu/sirt). The availability of instrumentation in the Shimadzu Center for Advanced Analytical Chemistry (www.uta.edu/scaac), one service center associated with the Institute, has significantly aided our ability to develop and apply a comprehensive collection of analytical measurements. I have written about the specifics of many of these techniques in a previous “LCGC Blog” entry (2); a book chapter providing additional details is forthcoming (3). In short, we have strived to merge best practices for sampling, sample preparation, analysis, and data treatment from different standardized methods with an efficiency that allows us to collect many samples from various study areas and transport them back to the laboratory for analysis.
At CLEAR we are dedicating a large amount of effort to answer the question, “Does UOG extraction impact groundwater quality?” A major goal is to provide an unbiased and reliable answer to this question, but it is not our sole focus. UOG processes, and many large-scale industrial activities, are highly complex and require coordination of efforts and state-of-the-art technologies from inception to production. We are also actively pursuing opportunities to aid aspects of waste handling and management. Samples of flowback and produced water from UOG operations, which represent extremely complex mixtures of organic and inorganic constituents, are our initial focus (4). Dedicated remediation strategies can be developed, assessed, and optimized on the laboratory scale very efficiently when chemical constituents can be rapidly assessed before, during, and after various treatment strategies using our analytical methods. In collaboration with other members of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at U.T. Arlington (CLEAR faculty affiliates), we are evaluating a number of active degradation chemistries that feature nanoparticle, organic catalyst, and enzymatic systems. We have also initiated evaluation of a number of passive filtration systems in collaboration with our current industrial partners.
CLEAR affiliates have recently submitted two major articles for publication that detail our most recent efforts to assess groundwater quality in highly active areas of UOG extraction. In one, we detail the first large-scale time-course evaluation. A major problem with many current studies is that they lack true baseline data, where water quality was assessed before significant industrial activity was initiated. In the Permian Basin in west Texas, we have completed such a project. Water was sampled before, during, and after the initiation of UOG operations in the Cline Shale. The data do indicate some systematic variation in water quality over the time course. Additionally, we have greatly expanded our analysis of water quality in the Barnett Shale. CLEAR affiliates sampled and analyzed 550 water wells to provide the largest environmental study to date performed in an area associated with extensive UOG activity. The details of these studies will be released following their peer review. While we have performed extensive data analysis on our data sets, a major asset associated with the efforts of CLEAR is the compilation of comprehensive water quality data, which can be further mined to glean new information in the future.
Some might wonder why we have to give a moniker to our collaborative research. There are several reasons. The first is to formalize a consortium of like-minded researchers around a common theme. Our affiliate base continues to grow as we seek new means to collect and evaluate data. CLEAR is looking for other researchers and companies to become affiliates, especially if they bring new technology and expertise to the team. Queries about joining our team can be sent to me directly or submitted through the website. Another reason is to provide a place where the general public can learn about latest research efforts in environmental analysis and remediation. It is not our only goal to promote our own research efforts, but also to provide a rich forum containing information and research from other groups, whether they are formally affiliated with CLEAR or not. Anyone can stay up to date by liking our Facebook page or by following our LinkedIn page. It is also possible to sign up for a regular newsletter through our website. As we expand our efforts to initiate new studies throughout the United States, and beyond, we hope that those who have chosen to follow CLEAR can promote access to new sampling sites. That has been one of the most challenging aspects of our research to date - simply getting into contact with those who will grant permission for us to take samples and propagate our research.
The most difficult part of our effort has been obtaining the necessary funding to continue our work. In addition to those landowners who have graciously allowed us to sample from their properties, we have been very fortunate to receive some support from U.T. Arlington, specifically the Shimadzu Institute, and our corporate affiliates. However, to continue to provide the quality and quantity of research, which is absolutely essential to inform public and private communities, more funding will be necessary. This is not a topic of research where significant federal grant opportunities abound to support our projects. We are reliant to a great deal on generous donations from various individuals and entities. CLEAR now provides a direct conduit that we hope will garner further contributions- a crowd-funding model, if you will - and of course, giving to a university is tax-deductible. No matter the size of donations, the support will allow us to continue to advance our innovative research efforts and communicate new information. One of our goals is to reach a point where CLEAR can even provide funds to support new and impactful studies proposed by affiliated members.
It is not a new concept to brand a research laboratory. Any perusal through a university website and faculty pages will be met with a variety of clever names and acronyms. The point of CLEAR is more to brand a collaborative effort associated with research pertaining to important industrial processes, especially UOG extraction. Given the essential contribution of these activities to the country’s economic prosperity, they need to be explored and advanced. To do this in a responsible fashion, appropriate studies are needed to assess their potential impact on the safety of those in proximity to the operations. In addition, the development of new methodologies associated with the assessment research brings new opportunities to develop technologies that can make industrial operations safer and more efficient. We are humbled and excited to be able to contribute to such a meaningful endeavor.
(1) B.E. Fontenot, L.R. Hunt, Z.L. Hildenbrand, D.D. Carlton Jr., H. Oka, J.L. Walton, D. Hopkins, A. Osorio, B. Bjorndal, Q. Hu, and K.A. Schug, Environ. Sci. Technol.47, 10032–10040 (2013).
(2) K.A. Schug, “Evaluating the Impact of Unconventional Oil and Gas Extraction on Groundwater,” The LCGC Blog. October 9, 2014. http://www.chromatographyonline.com/lcgc/Blog/The-LCGC-Blog-Evaluating-the-Impact-of-Unconventio/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/855634?contextCategoryId=50130?topic=129,115,111.
(3) D.D. Carlton Jr., Z.L. Hildenbrand, B.E. Fontenot, and K.A. Schug, “Addressing Concerns About Impacts from Unconventional Drilling using Advanced Analytical Chemistry,” in Hydraulic Fracturing Impacts and Technologies: A Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, V. Uddameri, A. Morse, and K. Tindle, Eds. (Taylor & Francis/CRC Press, in press, publication expected May 2015).
(4) J.B. Thacker, D.D. Carlton Jr., Z.L. Hildenbrand, A.F. Kadjo, and K.A. Schug, “Chemical Analysis of Flowback and Produced Water from Unconventional Drilling Operations,” Water (in press).
Previous blog entries from Kevin Schug: