Fracking Fracas

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Energy development is enchroaching on communities along Colorado's Front Range.
Graduate student Jessica Dehart collects sediment from the Arapahoe Aquifer for her experiments on the fate of organic compounds in fracking fluid.
Graduate student Jessica Dehart collects sediment from the Arapahoe Aquifer for her experiments on the fate of organic compounds in fracking fluid.
Dehart talks to her advisor, Professor Joe Ryan, in the laboratory.

A CU-led research team is taking on one of the most contentious issues in the Rocky Mountain West—the impacts of natural gas development.

The National Science Foundation awarded the team a $12 million grant to explore ways to maximize the benefits of development, while minimizing negative impacts on ecosystems and communities. The team’s proposal is one of only two selected last fall from more than 200 that were submitted to NSF’s Sustainability Research Network program.

The battle over oil and gas development has been particularly fierce in Colorado, where 90 percent of the acreage offered for drilling in the past five years has been protested, according to the Denver Post.

In Boulder County, homeowners are seeking local-government protection from the increased drilling that is encroaching on their east-county communities. The public’s biggest concern is possible groundwater contamination from the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Others see natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that leads away from dirty coal combustion toward cleaner sustainability methods.

Large, Multidisciplinary Team

Professor Joseph Ryan in civil, environmental, and architectural engineering is leading a multidisciplinary research team that will examine social, ecological, and economic aspects of the development of natural gas resources, and the protection of air and water resources. Graduate student Jessica Dehart collects sediment from the Arapahoe Aquifer for her experiments on the fate of organic compounds in fracking fluid. Below, she talks to her advisor, Joe Ryan, in the laboratory.

The team includes air and water quality experts, social scientists, human health experts, and information technology experts; and there also is a substantial outreach and education effort led by the Center of the American West. Faculty and students from mechanical engineering also are involved, along with partners at the Colorado School of Mines and several other institutions.

Hydraulic Fracturing

Team members will review industry practices for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping pressurized water, sand, and chemicals deep into the ground through 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. 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.

Other CEAE faculty involved are Professor Harihar Rajaram, who will assist in investigating the hydrologic processes tied to potential risks, including groundwater and aquifer systems; and Professor Karl Linden, who also will be involved on the water quality side of the project, evaluating treatment technologies such as ozone and advanced oxidation processes for the sustainable reuse and safe discharge of generated wastewater.

Student Involvement

CU engineering graduate student Jessica Dehart is among the students who will work on the project. She is getting started on laboratory experiments related to the fate and transport of organic compounds contained in fracking fluid.

“It’s a really exciting area to be investigating because there are a lot of questions to answer and not a large body of research already out there,” says Dehart, who recently collected sediment from the Arapahoe Aquifer, one of four principal aquifers within the Denver Basin, for her tests.

The recipient of a competitive EPA STAR Fellowship, Dehart began her involvement in engineering research after working with CU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter on a project in Nepal. “I got very excited that I could have a career that could immediately impact people’s lives,” she recalls.

A Balanced Perspective

After completing an environmental internship with an oil and gas company to get hands-on experience, Dehart says she can understand the different perspectives on oil and gas development and how important it is to keep a balanced view while conducting the research.

Another student, Adrianne Kroepsch in environmental studies, is working on outreach efforts with the Center of the American West by synthesizing the literature on key topics and clarifying “what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can learn about these issues.”

Ryan says the research team has no preconceived notions and will strive for transparency in its evaluation methods. “We all create demand for natural gas so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction,” he says. “Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the trade-offs associated with the benefits and the costs.”

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