A fired university scientist, a disappeared newspaper story and a gaggle of gleeful oil and gas groups are at the center of a controversy unfolding on the front lines of Colorado’s Front Range fracking wars — and environmental activists think there’s something fishy going on.
The mystery began on April 17, when Western Wire, a website run by oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance, reported that the University of Colorado Boulder had dismissed Dr. Detlev Helmig, a longtime air-quality researcher at the university’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).
Helmig, whose research on the environmental impacts of oil and gas development has been influential among anti-fracking activists and elected officials, no longer works for CU because of a conflict arising from his work in the private sector, university officials said in a statement. In 2018, Helmig founded Boulder A.I.R., a company that conducts air-quality monitoring for clients like the cities of Longmont and Broomfield, where nearby fracking operations have been protested by residents.
“The university determined, after careful review and consideration, that the separation of work and resources was not being maintained and a separation of the university from Dr. Helmig and his commercial enterprise was required,” says CU spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra.
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Helmig has not commented publicly on his departure, and declined an interview request for this story, but the news set off alarm bells for environmental activists. On April 23, climate advocacy group 350 Colorado submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request to CU Boulder, seeking to obtain all communications regarding Helmig and his research by university administrators since January 1, 2019. The group says it wants to allay “concerns that Dr. Helmig’s termination may have been sought by the oil and gas industry.”
“Dr. Helmig’s research is an invaluable source of information for our communities that concerned legislators, regulators, city and county-level decision makers, and many members of the public have relied upon to understand the impact that the oil and gas industry is having on public health and our environment,” Micah Parkin, 350 Colorado’s executive director, explains.
In an op-ed published today, April 28, in the Boulder Daily Camera, Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones and Senator Steve Fenberg, who represents the county in the Colorado legislature, say they were "shocked" to learn of Helmig's termination. They praised his work helping cities along the Front Range monitor air quality, noting that it is "very common for research professors like Helmig to provide consulting services to organizations outside the university setting."
"While we strongly disagree with CU’s decision to part ways with Helmig, what we disagree with even more is the energy industry’s attempts to take advantage of this situation to minimize the role that their emissions play in fueling our region’s serious air quality problems," Jones and Fenberg wrote.
Further raising environmentalists’ alarm was the disappearance of an April 13 Longmont Times-Call story with comments from Helmig regarding air quality on the Front Range during the coronavirus shutdown. Citing Helmig’s research, the article noted that while air pollution from vehicles has declined amid a sharp decrease in traffic, “gases closely linked to oil and gas operations…have continued to spike, clearly denoting the industry’s effect on the Front Range’s air quality.”
In a rare front-page correction published on April 25, Times-Call managing editor John Vahlenkamp said that the article contained numerous errors and information that lacked context. “Concerns about this article were brought to the attention of the editor on April 17 by representatives of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, an industry advocacy group,” he wrote.
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Vahlenkamp listed several factual errors in the April 13 story, but the lengthy correction doesn’t contradict the article’s central claim that emissions from oil and gas production have continued during the pandemic, demonstrating their air-quality impacts. While many oil and gas operators have taken steps to reduce their on-site emissions in recent years, air-quality research has concluded that as much as 40 percent of local emissions of ozone-forming pollutants come from oil and gas facilities. Vahlenkamp stressed that “this list of corrections and clarifications regards Times-Call reporting, not Helmig’s work.”
The strange timing of the two incidents has left Colorado environmental activists — who have long accused the state's powerful oil and gas industry of aggressive and underhanded tactics — with plenty of questions.
“The fact that Dr. Helmig was apparently fired after 25 years of service without warning following his research appearing in several news articles about pollution from the fracking industry has raised serious concerns among many people that political pressure from powerful polluters may have played a role,” Parkin says. “If so, such an attempt to silence and discredit effective scientists may be intended to have a chilling effect on researchers’ willingness to speak out against powerful industries and to hide the dangers from the public."
CU Boulder, however, denies that pressure from oil and gas groups led to Helmig’s departure. “As world leaders in this type of research, we remain dedicated to and fully supportive of the type of research that Dr. Helmig conducts,” Parra says. “The decision to part ways was not driven by anyone or any entity placing pressure on the university.”