Five Things To Know About That New Colorado Emissions Study
University of Colorado researcher Detlev Helmig is out with another study falsely blaming oil and natural gas production for poor air quality in the Denver Front Range. Helmig doesn’t actually publish anything new, instead reviewing old work that uses inaccurate measurements, ignores key context, and relies on the flawed research of others.
Helmig’s study was covered by the Denver Post, and while the article noted the report was peer reviewed, it omitted the fact that it was funded by Earthworks, an environmental activist group whose goal is to shut down the industry. So, the high profile write up granted all the credibility, but noted none of the bias.
What’s more troubling, this report is being touted by Colorado State Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg as reason for bringing forward legislation with increase air monitoring and require further health studies.
Here are five things to know about Helmig’s study:
- The study was funded in part by an activist environmental group whose goal is to shut down industry.
Helmig acknowledges his study was “in part funded by a contract from Earthworks.” The organization, funded by major “Keep It In The Ground” foundations like Sierra Club and Rockefeller family groups, has a clear agenda of wanting to shut down the oil and natural gas industry and a long history of misleading the public to drum up media coverage and advance its agenda. It has even stated it’s engaged in a “war on fracking.”
The group has published “Threat Maps” that it says show heightened health risks for those living near production, but used research that has “data quality issues and uncertainties in the model.”
Earthworks has also said fracking could contaminate drinking water in Texas, but didn’t offer any proof, acknowledging that there was “no way to quantify the risk.” Furthermore, a Syracuse University professor said Earthworks developed “an implausible model that predictably leads to implausible, and in my judgment, completely wrong results” and said there is a “lack of objectivity” in the group’s research.
- Helmig is only reviewing previous research, much of which is flawed.
Helmig managed to get the Post to publish a story despite his latest research featuring nothing new. Instead, he’s reviewing already-published studies that support his anti-oil and natural gas agenda, while leaving out other information.
“This review and policy bridge provides an overview of the evolution of the understanding of atmospheric impacts and the current state of knowledge of O&NG emissions in Colorado. A comprehensive review and evaluation of health effects of atmospheric O&NG emissions in Colorado is intentionally not included.”
Helmig’s previous research includes taking part in air monitoring several years ago that attempted to link ozone pollution to oil and natural gas production. Yet he didn’t do any work that analyzed ozone for particular sources. He told the Boulder County Commission in 2018:
“We did not do ozone production modeling here. We did not do a study that would attribute ozone to particular sources. This monitoring we did actually did not even include ozone. But I find it so interesting and the connection is so important that I kind of threw this into the data in context and also illustrate the value of these observations.” (emphasis added)
Helmig primarily reviews his own existing research and that of Lisa McKenzie – another University of Colorado researcher with a clear anti-industry bias and history of debunked studies – and Helmig acknowledges her part in his latest review for providing “text corrections and proofreading,” showing the two continue to work together to push a unified agenda.
Energy In Depth has extensively covered McKenzie’s work over the years, repeatedly noting her tendency for flawed research and leaving out key context. That includes her study published in the summer of 2019 that attempted to connect oil and natural gas production with congenital heart defects did not take any actual air measurements and was not able to take into account the health history of mothers like smoking, obesity, and diabetes.
- Helmig is ignoring key context on ozone.
The bulk of Helmig’s study is aimed at blaming the oil and natural gas industry for Colorado’s ozone pollution, but he ignores crucial context on why the state faces unique challenges in dealing with the issue.
Colorado has for years been in non-attainment for ozone for decades because of topographical, geographical, and meteorological issues, which lead in part to a high volume of naturally occurring ozone and ozone pollution from “background sources” – which come across the state’s borders from other places, as far away as China.
Yet Colorado has made progress on combatting ozone, the result of previous governors, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and other stakeholders working together to make progress on the issue including seeking a waiver from the EPA to help deal with these challenges until Gov. Jared Polis stopped that process.
Helmig follows Polis’s lead in blaming oil and natural gas production but both of them ignore that Polis’ top environmental official has said this strategy is flawed because of how little control Colorado has over naturally occurring and background ozone. John Putnam, the environmental director at CDPHE, told the state legislature:
“We do factor in neighboring states and even some other countries when we do our planning. So for example, the worst days of ozone here on the Denver Front Range, the majority of those emissions come from outside of the state and it’s one of the reasons we support efforts by our neighboring states, efforts on a federal level to reduce pollution through the United States so it reduces what we have to do here in the state to meet our standards.”
- Helmig uses the flawed ethane-to-methane proxy.
Replicating a favorite strategy of other anti-oil and natural gas researchers, Helmig attempts to use ethane measurements as a proxy for methane – a flawed method that’s claimed to be a useful shortcut but leads to inaccurate measurements. Helmig explains:
“Over the past five years, ethane has become an increasingly utilized tracer for natural gas VOC emissions. Ethane has relatively weak non-O&NG source emissions, which makes it a sensitive tracer for identifying O&NG plumes and influences. The ethane to methane enhancement ratio has been used to characterize emissions from particular basins, and for scaling the VOCs flux to methane.”
But Helmig’s fellow researchers at the University of Colorado and those at NOAA just down the street in Boulder have rejected the ethane-to-methane proxy and found that its use led to methane emissions from oil and natural being overestimated by as much as 10 times.
The NOAA study specifically called out Helmig’s use of this method and said that:
“Although [ethane] are appropriate indicative tracers for [oil and natural gas] emissions, [oil and natural gas methane] trends cannot be accurately estimated from [ethane]. Thus, any conclusion of a large fossil CH4 increase in the past decade from studies that have used the constant ER assumption is unreliable.” (emphasis added)
- Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry continues to make progress on ozone.
Helmig’s assertion that the oil and natural gas industry is the primary culprit for Colorado’s ozone issues is demonstrably false.
According to NOAA, the industry makes up only a small portion of ozone:
“They found that on average, oil and gas emissions account for about 17 percent of the daily infusion of VOCs that create ground-level ozone.”
A University of Colorado review found:
“Summertime ozone pollution levels in the northern Front Range periodically spike above 70 parts per billion (ppb), which is considered unhealthy—on average, 17 ppb of that ozone is produced locally. The new research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, shows that oil and gas emissions contribute an average of 3 ppb of the locally produced ozone daily, and potentially more than that on high-ozone days.” (emphasis added)
And even as oil and natural gas production in Colorado continues to increase, emissions from the industry are falling. Lynn Granger, the executive director of API-Colorado told the Denver Post:
“What we know is that as production has increased fourfold in Colorado, related emissions have dropped to 25-year lows.”
Unfortunately, this is yet another report paid for by anti-energy activists that leaves out key context, misrepresents data to the public, and ignores the fundamental challenges of dealing with ozone pollution in Colorado. It’s already been used by a leading Democratic state lawmaker to boost support for his bill to increase air monitoring and will surely be cited by others opposed to responsible oil and natural gas development.
Activist-funded reports shouldn’t be presented as nonpartisan, unbiased research and then be used to sway public policy and public opinion on the state’s crucial energy sector.