To monitor air quality, scientists chase methane plumes in dead of night | 6/15/2016 | Staff
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As days turn to nights in Broomfield, Colorado, residents may spot a white Chevrolet Tahoe with a pole jutting out its top slowly moving through neighborhoods and down city streets.

The SUV is jam-packed with sensitive equipment tracking what people are breathing in Broomfield, which sits atop a major oil and gas production zone. It's a crucial component of a collaborative, multiyear study examining the relationship between oil and gas development and local air quality.

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Mobile plume tracking, led by Colorado State University air pollution experts, is a key technology in Broomfield's ongoing Air Quality Testing Program. And it's just one aspect of a three-year, $1.7 million contract awarded by Broomfield last year to the lab of CSU atmospheric scientist Jeff Collett, as a subcontractor to environmental data company Ajax Analytics. Together, CSU and Ajax Analytics are painting a comprehensive picture of Broomfield's air, and how it is being affected as new oil and gas wells are drilled, completed and moved into production.

It's 11 p.m. on a Thursday night in July, and CSU atmospheric scientist Arsineh Hecobian is maneuvering the plume-tracking Tahoe through a Broomfield neighborhood. She glances periodically at a dashboard-mounted screen with real-time readouts of methane and acetylene concentrations in the air. Methane is the primary component of natural gas.

Feet - Workers - Energy - Company - Extraction

Several hundred feet away, workers for the Denver-based energy company Extraction Oil & Gas are performing hydraulic fracturing on the fenced-off Interchange pad, which contains 12 oil and gas wells. The faint smell of musty basement occasionally wafts by. Hecobian watches the methane parts-per-million readout creep from 1.8 to 2—which is still within typical background methane concentration limits for Colorado. Eyes on the screen, she puts the Tahoe in reverse, trying to locate the invisible plume. Once she's inside the plume, she'll collect a grab sample...
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