Mountain States

CU Boulder Researcher Whose Work Spurred Anti-Energy Policies Fired for Violating University Policy

A controversial CU Boulder environmental and climate researcher – who has been featured recently in Colorado media including the Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio and is widely cited by state and local government leaders and activists – was abruptly fired from his position at the academic institution for violating his agreement with the university regarding his private sector work.

Dr. Detlev Helmig, a researcher at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, consistently publishes taxpayer-funded flawed studies that target the oil and natural industry. According to the university, he has also been improperly using this publicly funded research in his personal business pursuits, despite pledging he would keep the two separated.

As the Boulder Daily Camera reports:

“‘… CU Boulder and Dr. Helmig worked to clearly separate the work performed and resources used by this commercial enterprise from the work and resources of the university,’ [CU Boulder Spokeswoman Melanie Marquez] Parra said in an email. ‘This is exceedingly important for the university as the university and its employees are stewards of research dollars from multiple sources. The university determined, after careful review and consideration, that the separation of work and resources was not being maintained and a separation of the university from Dr. Helmig and his commercial enterprise was required.’” (emphasis added)

Not only was Helmig’s profile on the INSTAAR website removed, but all of the air monitoring data INSTAAR has been collecting is also no longer available.

Helmig’s departure from CU Boulder could have massive ripple effects throughout politics and business in Colorado. EID asks six key questions that should be answered in the wake of this situation:

#1 Will more details emerge surrounding Helmig being fired?

CU Boulder clearly explained why Helmig was fired, but a few questions remained unanswered, including:

  • How long was the investigation ongoing?
  • Was Helmig giving media interviews while the investigation was ongoing?
  • Who now owns this publicly funded research – Helmig or INSTAAR (and by extension, the taxpayers)?
  • When will the public be able to access the air monitoring data again?
  • Does INSTAAR support the conclusions reached by Helmig that have influenced Colorado policy and will it release a statement on this?

There are likely others that need to be asked as well, but these seem to be the most pressing as Coloradoans begin to make sense of what has occurred.

#2 How does this affect the credibility of Helmig’s past research?

If Helmig was willing to violate an agreement with a taxpayer-funded university that he used as a vehicle to publish flawed, anti-industry research, what does that say about the objectivity of his work?

In February, Helmig published a study that was partially funded by “Keep It In the Ground” group Earthworks that used flawed research to blame the oil and natural gas industry for Colorado’s struggles with air quality and ozone pollution. In that same study, Helmig relied on the misguided ethane-to-methane proxy measurement that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found significantly exaggerates methane emissions and chose to ignore the background ozone that comes into Colorado from other states and countries.

In a separate study, Helmig acknowledged to building models aimed at attacking the industry that don’t even include ozone. In a third study, he conceded that other sources besides oil and natural gas could be a major contributor to rising ethane emissions, despite laying the fault solely at the feet of industry in media interviews.

Helmig also relies on research from Lisa McKenzie, another CU researcher with a clear agenda against the oil and natural gas industry who has published several debunked studies.

#3 How does this affect Steve Fenberg’s legislative agenda?

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg has been one of the biggest opponents of oil and natural gas production in state government and he was a primary author of SB 181.

After Helmig’s latest study was published blaming ozone pollution on the industry, Fenberg followed up his praise of the work on Twitter with a proposal for new legislation aimed at the industry – a bill that’s been informed by conversations with Helmig.

With Helmig no longer employed, Fenberg must decide if he’ll continue to rely on this research to support his legislative agenda or find new scientists to cite.

#4 Will CDPHE alter their regulatory programs?

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment is the one of the primary oil and natural gas regulatory agencies in the state, with a specific focus on air quality. Helmig’s study from February that prompted Fenberg’s latest legislation was praised by two top CDPHE officials.

One of those officials, John Putnam, however, has correctly noted the amount of background ozone that Colorado must deal with, undercutting Helmig’s studies. Nonetheless, Putnam has also appeared on panels with the controversial researcher.

Similarly, Boulder County maintains a website that constantly updates with the latest air quality data – a system run by Helmig.

Like Fenberg, the CDPHE and other government bodies must also decide if they’ll use Helmig’s research to support regulatory actions, especially since CDPHE has called into question his methods.

#5 Will Helmig continue to be an ever-present voice in the media?

Helmig consistently speaks with the media about his work, which has been the subject of expansive coverage, including one story published just days before his dismissal. That Longmont Times-Call story was about Helmig’s research on air quality during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helmig’s study from February was featured in a long write-up from the Denver Post.

Boulder A.I.R., Helmig’s private company, was also was featured in the Broomfield Enterprise last year.

Helmig has established himself as the go-to guy for reporters looking for a comment on Front Range air quality issues. Media outlets like CPR, Boulder Daily Camera and Colorado Independent have all featured his work and perspectives in recent months.

Reporters around Colorado might have just lost their most quotable scientist.

#6 Will activists still tout Helmig’s work?

In the wake of Helmig’s dismissal, anti-energy activist groups in Colorado have remained conspicuously silent, an apparent tacit acknowledgement that Helmig had in fact acted improperly.

These groups have been some of Helmig’s biggest promoters, using his flawed research to advance their agenda against oil and natural gas operations in the state. The story published by the Longmont Times-Call days before Helmig’s dismissal reported that “anti-fracking groups like Colorado Rising and 350 Colorado have pointed to Helmig’s data in the past to call for larger setbacks, increased monitoring or even outright bans.”

Colorado Rising has promoted his work on Facebook and 350 Colorado hosted Helmig to present his work to their members.

These activist groups love to promote Helmig’s work, but will they concede that his departure from CU Boulder was justified? And how will Earthworks respond to this alleged misuse of funds for research they also partially funded?

This is an ongoing situation that EID will continue to follow. Hopefully, in the near future we’ll see more of these questions answered.

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