NSF awards CU-Boulder-led team $12 million to study effects of natural gas development

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Here’s the release from the University of Colorado at Boulder (Joseph Ryan/Jim Scott):

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $12 million grant to a University of Colorado Boulder-led team to explore ways to maximize the benefits of natural gas development while minimizing negative impacts on ecosystems and communities.

Led by Professor Joseph Ryan of CU-Boulder’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department, the team will examine social, ecological and economic aspects of the development of natural gas resources and the protection of air and water resources. A part of NSF’s Sustainability Research Network initiative, or SRN, the project will focus on the Rocky Mountain region, where natural gas development, as well as objections to it, are increasing.

“We all create demand for natural gas so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction,” said Ryan. “Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the trade-offs associated with the benefits and costs of natural gas development.”

The SRN team assembled by Ryan includes air and water quality experts, social scientists, human health experts, information technology experts and a substantial outreach and education effort. The SRN team will be advised by an external committee that includes representatives of the oil and gas industry, regulatory agencies, environmental organizations, local governments, academia and Native American tribes. Preparation of the SRN proposal to the NSF was fostered by CU-Boulder’s Office for University Outreach, which supported the creation of the Colorado Water and Energy Research Center, said Ryan.

As part of the effort, Ryan said team members will review industry practices for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep down well bores to crack rocks and free petroleum and natural gas for easier extraction. The team will evaluate the current state of drilling technology, the integrity of well bore casings and natural gas collection mechanisms and processes.

Hydraulic fracturing requires large volumes of chemically treated water — most wells require between 3 million and 5 million gallons of water each, say experts. The fracturing fluid left in the ground, as well as the fluid that returns to the surface, known as “flowback,” present potential ecological and health risks if not handled properly, Ryan said.

While oil and gas extractions from hydraulic fracturing also result in atmospheric emissions of some greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds, natural gas is nevertheless seen by many as a “bridge fuel” that leads away from dirty coal combustion toward cleaner sustainability methods, said Patrick Bourgeron, associate director of the SRN and a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research.

As part of the project, a team led by CU-Boulder Professor Harihar Rajaram will be investigating the hydrologic processes tied to potential risks of natural gas and oil extraction, including groundwater and aquifer systems. The team also plans to assess the risk of natural gas and oil extraction to water quality and mitigation strategies that involve improvements in current water treatment technology.

Professor Jana Milford of CU-Boulder’s mechanical engineering department will lead a team monitoring and modeling the potential risks of natural gas and oil development to air quality. Professor John Adgate of the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver will spearhead a team assessing the potential risks of natural gas development to public health.

Other partners on the CU-led NSF project include the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Michigan and California State Polytechnic University Pomona.

Attitudes toward natural gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing vary widely around the West, said CU-Boulder Professor Mark Williams, a co-investigator on the project. One classic Colorado example is Boulder County and adjoining Weld County to the northeast. “The geology doesn’t change, the price of gas doesn’t change and the extraction methods are the same,” he said. “But for the most part, Boulder County opposes hydraulic fracturing while Weld County generally embraces it.”

Ryan said the network’s research findings eventually will be shared with the public through an extensive outreach and education effort led by SRN co-investigator and CU-Boulder Professor Patricia Limerick of the Center of the American West. The effort includes a “citizen science” component in which the public is encouraged to make science measurements, including air quality readings made with portable instruments compatible with smart phones, and share the results with the SRN research team.

“The citizen science aspect of this effort will result in a stronger connection between the public and the science used to make regulatory decisions,” said Professor Michael Hannigan of CU-Boulder’s mechanical engineering department and one of the co-investigators on the SRN project.

Natural gas production, especially the use of hydraulic fracturing, has become the subject of intense controversy, said Limerick. “Some people living in proximity to well sites are understandably worried and anxious, often feeling powerless as they confront a possible threat to their health and to the quality of their lives.

“Environmental advocates find themselves pulled between the climate benefits of natural gas, which releases significantly less carbon in combustion than coal, and the disturbances associated with natural gas extraction,” she said.

Outreach events will include periodic town hall meetings around the West. There also will be SRN meetings involving engineers, natural scientists and social scientists to stay abreast of the latest technologies and evolving socioeconomic factors regarding natural gas production, Limerick said.

“Unraveling complex processes involving Earth systems, especially the coupling of human activities and climate, depends increasingly on partnerships among natural science, philosophy and ethics, economics, social science, mathematics and engineering,” says Marge Cavanaugh, NSF acting assistant director for geosciences.

The CU-led research team and a second team from Penn State were chosen from more than 200 SRN proposals by the NSF as part of its Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability program. The $12 million award to CU-Boulder is for five years.

More coverage from the Associated Press via The Columbus Republic. From the article:

Ryan says part of the team’s work will include reviewing industry practices for hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals into rock to free oil and gas.

More coverage from Cathy Proctor writing for the Denver Business Journal. From the article:

CU’s team will examine social, ecological and economic aspects of the development of natural gas resources and the protection of air and water resources. The project will focus on the Rocky Mountain region, which has had natural gas drilling and production for decades. Worries have risen in the last few years among Colorado’s Front Range residents as the state’s oil and gas activity has shifted from the Western Slope to the urban corridor east of the Rockies.

Here’s the release from the National Science Foundation (Cheryl Dybas):

To explore ways of maximizing the benefits of natural gas development while minimizing potential negative effects on human communities and ecosystems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has entered into a cooperative agreement with a University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder)-led team of scientists, engineers and educators and eight partner organizations.

NSF has also entered into a cooperative agreement with another interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and educators; it supports a multi-institution research network on sustainable climate risk management strategies. The network is centered at Penn State University and involves nine other U.S. universities and research institutes.

Known as NSF Sustainability Research Networks, or SRNs, the teams will focus on the effects of natural gas development on air and water resources, and on how to adapt to and mitigate the risks of climate change, while developing new sustainability strategies in an altered world.

The SRN program is part of NSF’s Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) investment.

“Unraveling complex processes involving Earth systems, especially the coupling of human activities and climate, depends increasingly on partnerships among natural science, philosophy and ethics, economics, social science, mathematics and engineering,” says Marge Cavanaugh, NSF acting assistant director for Geosciences.

“The Sustainability Research Networks will enable synergistic and catalytic interaction among these disparate disciplines,” says Cavanaugh, “with the goal of finding answers to the most critical questions about sustainability.”

The SRNs are supported by NSF’s Directorates for Geosciences; Engineering; Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences; Biological Sciences; Computer & Information Science & Engineering; Mathematical & Physical Sciences; Education & Human Resources; Office of International Science and Engineering; and Office of Polar Programs.

“Due to national economic and energy security priorities, fossil fuels will likely continue to be a significant part of the energy portfolio in the U.S and throughout the globe for the foreseeable future,” says Thomas Peterson, NSF assistant director for Engineering.

“Climate and coastal regions are likely to be at increasing risk, and water resources and air quality may also become more challenged,” he says. “The objective of the SRNs is to contribute to building a sound scientific and engineering foundation for addressing such risks and challenges.”

“Sustainability Research Networks combine the best of our research efforts in social and physical science and engineering into an effort to better understand the complex relationships between environmental change and the human condition,” says Myron Gutmann, NSF assistant director for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences.

“The SRNs include combinations of social sciences that will guide the future of our efforts to create a sustainable planet.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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