CSU profs study methane contamination in groundwater, air

CSU professors are conducting research into how methane is contaminating local water sources. Methane is combustable even in water, which could be potentially hazardous.
CSU professors are conducting research into how methane is contaminating local water sources. Methane is combustable even in water, which could be potentially hazardous.

Faulty machinery or incorrect resource removal can result in methane gas contamination in our water or air, a problem that can lead to household explosions and global warming. CSU professors are doing research to assess risks associated with this contamination.

Oil and gas well drilling are commonly associated with gases being released into usable water. CSU civil and environmental engineering professor Ken Carlson said that although the risks of methane contamination and the existence of thermogenic methane as a result of oil and gas well drilling may be exaggerated, both are real problems in Colorado.

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Methane contamination in groundwater is either biogenic, meaning that it is very old and has occurred naturally as a result of bacterial activity, or thermogenic, meaning that it was created as a result of extreme temperature and pressure below the surface of the earth, released through processes such as faulty oil drilling.

Fracking is commonly associated with methane contamination in groundwater, but Carlson said that fracking is not more likely to contaminate water than other forms of oil and gas well drilling.

“The concern is not methane (in) drinking (water), or even lighting your water on fire,” Carlson said. “Let’s say a homeowner ran his shower with methane in it, and then happened to light a stove with all of this methane in the house. It could explode. Methane is colorless and odorless… so you wouldn’t know.”

In addition to being flammable, methane is an extremely dangerous greenhouse gas when leaked directly into the air, according to Anthony Marchese, CSU mechanical engineering professor.

Marchese is researching methane’s concentration in our atmosphere at gas piping sites throughout the country, and Carson is researching the concentration of methane in groundwater in Weld County, a Colorado county with 21,027 oil and gas wells, according to the Colorado Weekly and Monthly Oil and Gas Statistics.

“It’s a biological process, taking organic carbon and reducing it to methane,” Carlson said. “When you hear about these coal mine explosions, it’s because there’s been a spark and there’s methane present, and what comes out of the coal is a biological methane.”

Carlson’s results currently indicate that in Weld County, less than two percent of methane contamination in groundwater is thermogenic. He said that despite common fears, contamination due to oil and gas drilling is possible, but rare.

“We wanted to find out how many, if any, water wells had been contaminated by thermogenic methane,” Carlson said. “If you see thermogenic methane in a water well, it’s pretty much direct evidence that it came from an oil and gas well.”

Marchese is also doing research to determine risks of excess methane released into the air, supported by the Environmental Defense Fund. He and his team travel to about 800 sites across the country to determine the effects of switching power plants and vehicles from coal, gasoline or diesel to natural gas.

Marchese said that if more than three percent of the methane gas flowing through the systems he tests leaks out, it becomes a greenhouse gas problem. Although his results are not yet conclusive, when systems like the ones he is testing function properly, less than one percent of the methane leaks out.

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“Depending on the percentage of the methane that leaks out from the natural gas, switching over to natural gas could either be a greenhouse gas benefit, or a greenhouse gas problem,” Marchese said. “Methane is about a hundred times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Both professors stated that although their results are not great enough to warrant concern, there are circumstances that necessitate improvements in machinery, safety measures or practical behaviors.

“There is room for improvement here, but the ‘sky is falling’ scenario that some people will say, just doesn’t seem to be what our research indicates,” Carlson said.

Collegian Reporter Ellie Mulder can be reached at news@collegian.com.