Mountain States

‘New’ CU-Boulder ‘Study’ Just a Repackaging of Old, Debunked Research

Just a few days before Colorado residents begin voting on Proposition 112 – an extreme anti-fracking measure that would impose 2,500-foot setbacks and effectively ban future oil and gas development in the state – the University of Colorado at Boulder issued a press release under the eye-catching headline, “Broad energy and environment study led by CU Boulder ends with significant findings.”

The timing of the release is quite suspect to say the least. And despite CU Boulder Professor Joe Ryan’s insistence that the timing of the release was motivated by a desire to provide voters with completely objective, scientific data prior to casting votes on Proposition 112, it’s quite clear upon scrutiny of the press release that the opposite is true.

First of all, there isn’t a new “study” at all. Instead, the press release includes a link to the “AirWaterGas NSF Sustainability Network” website, which includes a list of studies that were released between 2013 and 2017.

And not only are none of the studies even remotely new, many of them – including the collective works of go-to anti-fracking researcher Lisa McKenzie – have been thoroughly debunked and discredited by third-party experts, including the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

When asked by EID where one could find a summary of the new “study” the press release indicates exists, Ryan explained,

“… Because some of our research is still in progress, we don’t have an up-to-date summary report for the whole study at this point. There’s a list of the publications by the network’s researchers at up to date to about mid-2017. Let me know if you have further questions.”

In other words, it’s a bibliography of the team’s authors.

EID followed up with questions regarding the origin of specific findings highlighted in a bulleted list in the press release, most notably the claim that:

“Studies from the AWG air quality team show that fugitive emissions of methane to the atmosphere are as much as three times higher than previous estimates…”

Though Ryan has yet to respond, it appears that conclusion was drawn from a four-year-old CU Boulder study that was based on emissions data collected in 2012. Not only is that study plagued by questionable methodology and assumptions (more on that in a bit) – it is woefully out of date, having been conducted long before Colorado’s current methane rules went into effect. In other words, emissions are far lower now than what was reported in that study. As Will Allison, director of the Air Pollution Control Division with the CDPHE told the Greeley Tribune when the study came out in 2014,

“We were aware of this research and we agree that methane emissions are an issue and need to reduce leakage in oil and gas, and, frankly, one of the main reasons we proceeded with the rule-making. Those changes were just adopted and became effective.”

The study purported to find that methane emissions detected were three times higher than official state inventories, and that benzene emissions were seven times higher than state estimates. But it is important to note that the researchers’ findings were not only based on flyover measurements conducted over short two-day timespan in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, they also assumed that all non-methane hydrocarbon emissions detected were from oil and gas, even though vehicles are another major source.

The researchers also assumed that 75 percent of methane emissions detected were oil and gas related despite the fact that agriculture and coal seam seeps are major sources of methane in Weld County. As the Coloradoan reported when the study came out, “There are a half a million head of cattle in Weld; the manure they produce is also a source of methane. The coal seams in Weld County, formed millions of years ago, also contain methane.” The research team had been widely criticized for using similarly faulty methodology in previous methane research prior to this study’s release.

These facts noted, it would seem far more relevant – in the interest of informing the public with the latest and most accurate data – to point out research that has been released since the state’s oil and natural gas methane rules took effect. For instance, Colorado State University data from 2016 found methane emissions below one percent of production and benzene emissions below background levels along the Front Range. And according to the latest CDPHE data, the state’s VOCs emissions have plummeted by nearly half in just six years – even as oil production in the state quadrupled.

Ryan insists in the CU-Boulder press release that,

“We recognized that those affected by the rush of oil and gas development happening right now, particularly in Colorado, were getting info from two opposing sides – the oil and gas industry and environment groups. They didn’t have a way to reconcile that information and make judgments. Hopefully, the research of the AirWaterGas network does that and helps people recognize that there are pros and cons to a lot of these decisions and no easy answers.”

But to the contrary, the outdated and questionable data highlighted raises serious red flags regarding the timing of the release, indicating it was likely motivated more by politics than an honest desire to better inform the public.

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