State to study health risk from gas production

Researchers will rely on results of earlier analysis of air pollution

Researchers have completed a second Colorado oil and gas air pollution study that complements a recent one in Garfield County, and a state agency now plans to use results from the two studies to do a health risk assessment study.

Jeffrey Collett, head of Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science, led both landmark studies, which focus on emissions from drilling, hydraulic fracturing, flowback of liquids after fracking, and production operations.

The second study looked at operations on the northern Front Range. It found that emissions of methane, benzene and toluene were lower during fracking and flowback on the Front Range than was the case in Garfield County. But emissions of ethane and propane, which are larger, heavier compounds called natural gas liquids, were higher on the Front Range.

“This pattern is not surprising given the wetter nature of the oil and gas being recovered in the Denver-Julesburg Basin vs. the drier natural gas deposits in the Piceance Basin,” the study says.

Collett has described the research as being of national interest because of a lack of much previous data on emissions related to development of oil and gas wells, particularly when it comes to volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone pollution and in some cases are air toxins. It’s also unusual in that it directly measured emissions from these operations — the amount of a substance released over time — rather than just characterizing pollution concentrations in surrounding air.

The Garfield County study had found the highest emissions during the flowback stage, as researchers had expected would be the case, compared to other stages such as drilling and fracking. The Front Range study focused on the fracking, flowback and production stages and found the highest emissions during flowback and fracking. However, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment noted in a news release Thursday that fracking and flowback last for just days or weeks, while production continues for years.

The Garfield County study was funded by the county and several energy companies, while the Front Range study was paid for by the state. CDPHE said it expects to find and contract with a consultant by December to do the health risk assessment, which should be complete by the summer of 2018.

“These studies will provide us with critical information to design a detailed and accurate health risk assessment so we can answer questions related to potential health concerns related to oil and gas operations,” Dr. Larry Wolk, CDPHE’s executive director, said in the release.


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