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A changing landscape: WVU researcher discovers how oil and natural gas activity alter W. Va. streams from the ground up

West Virginia University researchers have discovered ecological issues caused by unconventional oil and gas activity.

As unconventional oil and natural gas activity affect the first link in the food chain, West Virginia University researchers are examining both the changes and how to mitigate them without losing an energy and economic resource. 

Ember Morrissey, assistant professor of environmental microbiology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resource and Design, has been researching the effects of unconventional oil and gas activity in West Virginia streams since 2019. She collaborated with Mike Strager, professor of resource economics, to obtain GIS information that led her to find strong connections between the changes in land use and stream properties.

Ember Morrissey

“Stream algae produce biomass that can be consumed as food for insects,” she said. “Insects are then food for fish and so on. It affects the whole food web. So, changes at the microbial level could be affecting the rest of the food web.”

Morrissey’s analysis focused on microbes, the lowest trophic level in streams, which had already begun to change. Streams with higher levels of oil and gas activity had more algae performing photosynthesis, an indication that there is more light availability to the streams, which may be a consequence of changes in land use and deforestation due to oil and gas activities.

Her recommendation to avoid this is to reduce erosion and limit deforestation, particularly close to the streams, and leave riparian zones, lands on the edge of the stream, intact to limit the effects uncovered in the research; however, to set up the fracking or extraction operation, pipelines and roads need to be constructed. Morrissey and Rachel Michaels, a former graduate student and research collaborator, found that streams near a large area of pipeline had more fine sediments and more silt and clay are often signs of erosion and runoff.

Consequentially, the fine sediment degrades the habitat for insects and fish—instead of having a clear streambed with nooks and crannies, their potential home and hunting ground is filled with sediment.

“An interesting result we found in these impacted streams was higher respiration,” Morrissey said. “One of the main things microbes do in sediment is break things down, so they decompose organic matter and produce CO2. Our best guess is that this is related to the import of those fine sediments. Basically, as soil gets washed into the stream, it brings with it some of the soil carbon and microbes break that down.”

This type of oil and gas activity taking place in West Virginia —and across Appalachia —isn’t just a regional issue.

“(Oil and gas activity) continues to be an important source of energy and these types of impacts we see here are not necessarily limited to this area,” Morrissey added. “Similar types of impacts are probably happening across the world where unconventional oil and gas activities are occurring.”

Her hope is that this research will inform best practices for how to limit impacts of oil and gas activity in freshwater streams to ensure optimal stream health.

Morrissey and Michaels collected samples from 30 West Virginia streams with varying oil and gas activity in their watersheds, an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions in terms of the impacts of oil and gas development on freshwater systems,” Morrissey said. “We don’t really understand why it has a big effect in some places and not in others. Future work could focus on trying to figure out what the differences are between these watersheds that drive that variation.”

Morrissey’s research was published in Water Research, a well-respected journal in the field.



CONTACT: Leah Smith
Interim Director of Marketing and Communications 
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design 

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