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Air pollution shows up more during ‘flowback’ on natural gas wells

Elise Thatcher

  Fracking can produce air pollution, but many more emissions likely happen during the next stage at a natural gas well.

Researchers with Colorado State University collected air quality data at approximately ten well pads in Garfield County between 2013 and 2015. The idea was to closely review methane and other emissions during the stages before and after a well produces natural gas. CSU professor Jeff Collett led the study and presented results to Garfield County commissioners on Tuesday.

“We’ll start with methane … and you’ll see here that we have a much higher emissions during flowback than we see during drilling or fracking,” Collett said.


That was true for chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Flowback is when an operator stops fracking, and then fracking fluid — plus naturally present underground water and natural gas — all start flowing to the surface.

To pinpoint the emissions, Collett and other researchers carefully tracked which direction air pollution was traveling once in the air, in a plume. But they found emissions switched directions almost constantly.

“Probably the biggest surprise was just how dynamic these plumes are when they’re coming off the pad,” said Collett after explaining the results. “We were maybe a little bit naive in thinking that we could just go and sit there in the plume for hours at a time and measure what was coming off the pad.”

Researchers found emissions were largely evenly distributed on all sides of the well, plus a general range for how much air pollution was present at different stages on the well pad.

Now it’s up to health officials to decide whether the levels detected are acceptable. They’re expected to pair that data with a Front Range study tracking emissions on a pad producing oil or natural gas.

After Tuesday’s presentation, commissioner Tom Jankovsky praised oil and gas operators

sitting in the audience.

“I just have to say thank you to the industry, not just the dollars you put into this but the fact that you gave access,” he said. “I really think this is unprecedented in most industries.”


Out of the total $1.8 million budget, the oil and gas industry paid $700,000. Commissioner John Martin bluntly asked whether that funding affected results.

“Have you been politically influenced or swayed in reference to the study by any side?” Martin queried.  

“No,” replied Collett.

“And you feel that ... it was set up properly,” continued Martin, “[so] that you could go ahead and do a scientific study and we all get to live with the results without political persuasion?”

“Yes, I certainly do,” said Collett. “And I know it wasn’t easy for all the stakeholders to sit back for three years and wait to see the findings.”

Garfield County covered the remaining $1 million to fund the research. Results will be analyzed more fully, and soon used by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as a reference. Researcher Jeff Collett said Tuesday the exact number of pads studied has been kept confidential, with the total locations fewer than 21.


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