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A natural gas boom is underway in the U.S., with more than 200,000 wells drilled in the last decade.In states like Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania, residents who live close to the natural gas bonanza have the same questions: What kind of pollutants is the industrial activity putting into their water and air, and are those pollutants making them sick?NPR's science desk & KUNC explore why there aren't solid answers to those questions yet...

Garfield County Teams Up with CSU to Study Natural Gas Emissions

KUNC File Photo

CSU researchers met with Garfield County commissioners today to discuss plans for a $1.76 million, three-year research project examining emissions connected to the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

The plans have been in the works since last September, with a total of 24 emissions experiments mapped out in the study. The idea is to look at emissions during various stages of well development: well drilling, hydraulic fracturing and flowback, or the recovery of fracturing fluids.

“Our main objectives in the design study are to quantify the emission of chemical compounds—especially volatile organic compounds during well-development operations,” said CSU Department of Atmospheric Science Head Jeffrey Collett.

Scientists will measure air around sites in both hot and cold temperatures, and collect samples from natural gas wells operated by different companies.

Researchers plan to use a “plume tracker vehicles” to measure both downwind and upwind emissions from natural gas wells. Elsewhere canisters and other air samplers will be used.

County Commissioners discussed providing as much as $1 million in funding from an oil & gas mitigation fund on Monday.  The details will be mapped out at a meeting in September. Meantime, gas industry members have preliminarily pledged about $800,000 in matching funds for the study.

The proposed project will not directly consider potential health impacts of emissions from natural gas wells. But researchers say in their proposal that information in the study “will provide a solid basis for other investigators to make a robust health impact assessment.”

NPR profiled previous efforts in Garfield County to study emissions from natural gas production last May. A pilot study launched in 2008 collected air near eight wells.

But the report quickly became a political football. John Martin, a Garfield County commissioner told NPR:

Both sides were fighting. They wanted to use this document in both arguments — that it didn't hurt anything and that it killed everyone.

Colorado State University, along with Air Resource Specialists Inc., is hoping to stay away from political issues that have plagued previous efforts to examine emissions. In a press release last Friday CSU described its proposal as “non-partisan”:

Increasingly, industry leaders, environmental groups and communities are looking to Colorado State to provide credible, non-partisan solutions to the complexities facing the oil and natural gas industry and the general public including issues related to water, land use, production, air, policy and cultural/social changes.

Results are expected in the fall of 2015.

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