Two teams come together to understand impacts of oil and gas development on air quality

mobile plume tracker

A mobile plume tracker is one of several instruments to be deployed for studying air quality for Broomfield citizens. Credit: Arsineh Hecobian/Department of Atmospheric Science

The City and County of Broomfield, like many parts of Colorado, is experiencing an oil and gas boom. With more than 80 new wells slated for drilling in Broomfield, city officials and many average citizens are seeking scientific answers to questions about air quality.

To get those answers, the city has awarded a three-year, $1.7 million contract to Ajax Analytics ­– a Colorado State University technology spinoff company – and a CSU Department of Atmospheric Science research group to provide new insight into emission sources, emission rates and health exposures related to oil and gas activities. Working together, the team will provide round-the-clock air monitoring and analysis. Their goals are real-time air quality awareness for Broomfield staff and citizens, and a comprehensive, multi-year report that paints a cohesive picture of local air quality.

Ajax Analytics, which has also worked with the City of Longmont this year, will maintain 17 sensor stations with continuously deployed sensors both near and downwind of planned oil and gas well pads to be operated by Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas. Sensor networks and machine learning can detect subtle changes in the environment and allow for high-resolution grab samples and rapid investigation. This information will provide Broomfield and Extraction Oil & Gas with key insights to quickly find and resolve pollutant concerns.

Proof-of-concept to company

 Fort Collins-based Ajax Analytics grew out of the Colorado Water Watch, a CSU-led groundwater monitoring project funded by Noble Energy and the state of Colorado. The lead scientist on the Colorado Water Watch, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ken Carlson, is Ajax Analytics’ chief scientific officer.

The Colorado Water Watch, which officially concluded in 2016, was a proof-of-concept initiative for using networked sensors in real-time environmental monitoring – in that case, of drinking water wells. According to Carlson, the real innovation is a generalized approach to using algorithms and modeling to make sense of large environmental datasets; Ajax Analytics is a data company – not tied to any specific type of environmental activity.

“As we said with the Colorado Water Watch, having that temporal coverage is really important,” Carlson said. “If you’re just going out and getting grab samples, you could miss a spike in contamination – which is especially true with air monitoring.”

Exposure concentrations

Joining these high-coverage efforts will be an experienced CSU research team led by Jeff Collett, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science, and co-investigator Arsineh Hecobian, a research scientist in atmospheric science. Collett and Hecobian have done extensive research measuring oil- and gas-related air emissions, including for a study in Garfield County. Collett’s team will focus on high-resolution measurements of potential exposure to benzene and other air toxics, including short-term exposures of about an hour.

Their experimental setup includes a vehicle-based mobile tracker that can follow and measure an emissions plume. The team will also perform canister-based air sampling a week at a time, using gas chromatography to report average concentrations of specific air toxics such as benzene and toluene.

While Ajax’s sensors will look for measurement variabilities that may relate to oil and gas activities, Collett’s approach is more traditional, quantitative and definitive. “We will have signatures from our analysis that will tell us, for example, ‘We see this much benzene, or these signatures of other volatile organic compounds,'” Collett said.

Together, the Ajax-CSU team should provide Broomfield with real-time, high-spatial coverage, and high-resolution visibility into air quality, while providing insight into which air toxics, if any, are attributable to oil and gas activities.

“We think the combination of our two datasets will provide a much better picture of what’s going on than just one or the other,” Carlson said.

Making sense of data

Ajax Analytics president Brent Buck, a CSU College of Business alumnus, said the company’s goal is to help average people make sense of otherwise incomprehensible troves of data. A citizen shouldn’t need an advanced degree to understand what they’re breathing, he said.

“Historically, air quality sample results don’t make sense to the average person,” Buck said. “Citizens don’t just need parts per billion of benzene in the air. They need context. How does the air quality near oil and gas activity compare to the local gas station? How is the air quality in my neighborhood? Is it worse? Better?  We hope that our data and insight will help Broomfield make changes that actually make a difference.”

Collett’s team will soon start capturing baseline data from at least four sites throughout Broomfield. The Ajax Analytics sensor network should be deployed and running by late October.