Just east of the mountains that make up Northern Colorado’s Front Range lies an array of pipes and pumps churning out natural gas. Aligned in rows within a fenced-off area near Fort Collins, these well pads are not part of the state’s profit-generating energy industry. Instead, they may hold the key to curbing methane — a source of emissions scientists believe contribute to global climate change.
Methane is a colorless, odorless flammable gas and one of the main components of natural gas. Drilling for natural gas releases methane into the atmosphere, where scientists say it is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
At the well pad site near Fort Collins, researchers at the Methane Emissions Test and Evaluation Center (METAC) use the natural gas facilities to test low-cost methane-sensing technologies and evaluate their performance. The CSU research facility is part of a program developed in coordination with the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) — a U.S. Department of Energy initiative designed to fund energy research projects.
“We do two types of research,” said Dan Zimmerle, CSU senior research associate. “We characterize emissions in the field and we’re also working on qualifying leak detections that a company could use to reduce the amount of emissions from their facilities.”
To understand the impact natural gas drilling has on air quality and climate, Zimmerle says researchers break the problem down into three areas: emission identification, leak detection and mitigation. Because methane leaks, known as “fugitive emissions,” occur throughout all aspects of natural gas supply chain process, researchers search for emissions from the moment a drill is placed in the ground until the combination of oil, gas and water is extracted from the well site. Emission research then is conducted during the separation process and as the petroleum products are transported via pipeline or truck.
To date, the research has helped the industry understand when and where emissions occur and at what stages they are the most severe.
“There’s one clear result of all the field work we’ve done. And that is: A few percent of all emission locations are responsible for a large percentage of emissions,” said Zimmerle. “A good rule of thumb is 4 or 5 percent of emitters at any scale are responsible for more than 50 percent of emissions. So the whole idea behind leak detection solutions is to find those and fix those quickly. If you do that, you could probably reduce total gas emissions close to half.”
Energy companies and industry associations are keeping a close eye on the results of the methane emission research. According to Zimmerle, METAC works with some 20 energy companies that provide matching funds for U.S. Department of Energy grants as well as the drilling equipment used to conduct testing.
Zimmerle says the support the industry provides the METAC project is proof it values environmentally sound energy production.
“We’ve seen companies become steadily interested in mitigating their environmental impact,” said Zimmerle. “And they’re not doing it for charity. They’re doing it because they feel if they don’t put their best foot forward, they’re going to lose their social license to operate, and that’s a very big concern to them.”
But while the industry offers support, federal and state lawmakers threaten to undercut research efforts by allowing energy policy to vacillate against the political winds. In September 2018, the Trump administration announced it would roll back the 2016 Obama-era standards to limit planet-warming methane pollution from oil and gas operations on federal lands. Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt called the rules “flawed” and “a radical assertion of legal authority.”
Zimmerle believes the on-again, off-again energy policy has led to inconsistent funding for energy research and created a strange dynamic in which segments of the industry often must work counter to their policy-making apparatus.
“It’s not unusual to have part of an industry association or company in favor of something while another part is lobbying against it. We work with the folks that are interested in moving forward,” said Zimmerle. “Regulators and industry — and even the environmental community — would like to see the new solutions come out and be used because we all think these solutions will reduce costs relative to the amount of emissions they’ll capture.”
Despite the fluctuating political environment, Zimmerle believes Colorado is a key hub for energy innovation. CSU is home to the Energy Institute — a one-of-a-kind energy research facility that supports more than 230 faculty members. It’s also home to the Powerhouse, a state-of-the-art 100,000-square-foot building that serves as a model for sustainable energy building practices and innovative architectural design.
The Powerhouse is the headquarters of the Energy Institute and also houses the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory. The Collaboratory facilitates energy research between CSU, the University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and provides matching funding for projects such as METAC.
“We’re well-positioned to do energy work,” said Zimmerle. “Colorado is not only a large center for oil and gas development, it’s also one of the places where there is active regulation of it. So there’s a lot happening in Colorado.”