Air Quality Reseacher Raises Oil Industry Ire

Jan 21, 2021

Colorado’s Northern Front Range has been out of compliance with federal ozone standards since 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to downgrade the region’s ozone status from “serious” to “severe.” Better air monitoring in some cities shows that emissions from the oil industry is contributing to bad air quality. One researcher has been shining a light on it. It's made him a target of the industry.

Dr. Detlev Helmig, an air quality researcher from Boulder, has given dozens of public presentations on pollution over the past few years in communities along the Front Range.

When he is not speaking to the public, he’s often found at Boulder Reservoir, at one of 5 research sites he operates in the area. This small hut is full of air monitoring equipment that tracks everything from ozone to VOCs, that’s Volatile Organic Compounds which are emitted by oil and gas operations.

While Boulder County is tightening regulations on drilling, its neighbor to the east, Weld County, is the most fracked county in the state and Helmig’s research shows that is impacting air quality in the entire region.

“This data has shown that the proximity to oil and gas operations makes a huge, huge difference for primary emissions. So methane, ethane, propane, benzene…so pollutants that are emitted by the operations directly makes a big, big difference.”

Helmig started his research several years ago when he was associate research professor at the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research at the University of Colorado in Boulder. But on April 7 2020 he was fired by CU, which accused him of improper use of public funds and compromising his “professional loyalty to the university,” something he strongly denies.

Community members and local officials leapt to Helmig’s defense. State Senate majority leader, Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, who relied on Helmig’s research as he crafted new legislation regulating the oil and gas industry, wrote an op-ed supporting Helmig and his work.

“I was shocked and I will defend him to the end because I think the work that he does is so incredibly important and he has a voice that is willing to be in the middle of the fray even if it’s unpopular, even if it’s politically difficult because he follows the science where it takes him,” said Fenberg.

Fenberg worked with Helmig on several pieces of legislation including SB 181 which overhauled how the state regulates oil and gas activity.

CU’s audit of Helmig’s work and his private research company has been widely criticized and contained several errors. Supporters of Helmig say his work made him a target of the oil and gas industry, which then put pressure on the university. Helmig himself wouldn’t comment directly on his firing due to ongoing investigations, but he says his research has made him very unpopular with the oil and gas industry.

“I’ve clearly seen industry ask questions about my work and challenge this work and regularly object what’s come out of this and question the validity of this monitoring and interpretation. That’s been reflected in quite a number of stories, articles and news releases by the industry.”

The cities of Longmont, Boulder, and Broomfield continue to contract with Helmig and his private research company to investigate air quality. State Senator Steve Fenberg says he continues to support Helmig and his research as SB 181 and other legislation goes into effect.

“In my experience his reputation when it comes to the science that he does is impeccable. Everything is peer reviewed, he is known and seen as an absolute expert in his field,” said Fenberg.

For his part Helmig continues to push back against CU’s allegations. And while the oil and gas industry has rejected his research, he says he hopes the industry will one day work with air quality researchers instead of fighting them.

“My goal has been to help provide good high quality data and information and interpretation to help direct that industry so their environmental impact can be minimized and to allow that industry to identify an avenue where their operations can be run in a sustainable manner,” said Helmig.




KSUT is part of the Fossil Fuels Reporting Project. Nine public radio stations in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are doing in-depth coverage of issues related to fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

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