CU-led team to study natural gas development

A team led by researchers from the University of Colorado will explore ways in which to maximize the benefits of natural gas development in the Rocky Mountain region while minimizing detrimental effects to the nearby environment and communities.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $12 million grant to fund work over the next five years as part of the Sustainability Research Network initiative.

“We all create demand for natural gas, so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction,” said Joseph Ryan, a professor in the civil, environmental and architectural engineering department at CU in Boulder who’s leading the project. “Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the tradeoffs associated with the benefits and costs of natural gas development.”

The team will examine the economic as well as ecological and social aspects of natural gas development.  The team will include experts in air and water quality,  information technology, human health and social sciences. The team will be advised by an external committee that will include representatives of the oil and natural gas industry as well as academics, environmental groups, local governments, Native American tribes and regulatory agencies.

As part of the project, Ryan said team members will review industry practices for hydraulic fracturing, a process which involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals down well bores to crack rock formations and free oil and gas for easier extraction. The team will evaluate drilling technology, the integrity of well bore casings and natural gas collection mechanisms.

A team led by Harihar Rajaram, another professor at CU, will investigate the hydrologic processes related to natural gas and oil extraction, including groundwater and aquifer systems. The team also plans to assess the effects of natural gas and oil extraction to water quality as well as mitigation strategies that involve improvements in current water treatment technology.

While oil and gas extraction from hydraulic fracturing also result in atmospheric emissions of some greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds, natural gas is nevertheless viewed by many as a “bridge fuel” that leads away from coal combustion toward other energy sources, said Patrick Bourgeron, associate director of the Sustainability Research Network and a fellow at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research at CU.

Jana Milford, a professor in the mechanical engineering department at CU, will lead a team monitoring and modeling the effects of natural gas and oil development on air quality. John Adgate, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver, will lead a team assessing the effects of natural gas development to public health.

Other partners on the project include the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder as well as California State Polytechnic University Pomona, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Michigan.

Attitudes toward natural gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing vary widely around the West, said Mark Williams, a CU professor and co-investigator. Boulder County and adjoining Weld County in Colorado offer an example, Williams said. “The geology doesn’t change, the price of gas doesn’t change and the extraction methods are the same. But for the most part, Boulder County opposes hydraulic fracturing while Weld County generally embraces it.”

Ryan said research findings eventually will be shared with the public through an extensive outreach and education effort led by Patricia Limerick, a co-investigator and faculty director of the Center of the American West at CU.

The effort will include a component in which the public will be encouraged to make scientific measurements, including air quality readings made with portable instruments compatible with smart phones, and share results with the research team. “The citizen science aspect of this effort will result in a stronger connection between the public and the science used to make regulatory decisions,” said Michael Hannigan, a co-investigator and professor with the mechanical engineering department at CU.

Outreach events will include periodic town hall meetings around the West. There also will be meetings involving engineers, natural scientists and social scientists to stay abreast of the latest technologies and evolving socioeconomic factors related to natural gas production, Limerick said.

“Unraveling complex processes involving Earth systems, especially the coupling of human activities and climate, depends increasingly on partnerships among natural science, philosophy and ethics, economics, social science, mathematics and engineering,” said Marge Cavanaugh, acting assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation.