Natural Gas 101 at Colorado State University Designed to Give Students an Overview of Important Colorado Industry

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Increased demand for natural gas and greater public interest in gas drilling and production in Colorado has led Colorado State University to offer students a course on the “Fundamentals of Natural Gas” for the first time.

The interdisciplinary course this spring features an introduction to the natural gas industry including geology, exploration, production, transportation and environmental issues. The class exposes students to all aspects of the natural gas industry with a particular focus on unconventional gas extraction as it is being practiced in Colorado.

“Part of the significance of this course is that it’s multidisciplinary – we have students from economics and construction management in addition to geology and engineering students,” said Sally Sutton, associate professor and geosciences department chair.

“It’s exciting to have so many different professors with different backgrounds,” said Jessica Olsen, a senior in mechanical engineering who has already accepted a job with Pioneer Natural Resources upon her graduation in May.

About 30 students in a variety of disciplines are enrolled, but 50 routinely show up. Some of the folks sitting in the front row are other faculty members teaching the course. Tom Sale, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Bryan Willson, mechanical engineering professor, for example, have attended Sutton’s lectures on the geology of shale.

“I’m having a load of fun in there,” said Willson, whose Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory has done more than any group in the world to address impacts of natural gas pipelines and help industry partners reduce environmental effects of natural gas compression as well as improve efficiency. “I’ve always been focused on the end use and haven’t studied the rock formations, and I find that pretty interesting.”

Other instructors include Ken Carlson and Tom Sale. Carlson is co-director of the Colorado Energy Water Consortium, a private-public partnership between CSU and the natural gas industry that is focused on addressing water issues related to shale gas extraction and production. Sale is a leader in solutions for petroleum impacted soil and groundwater with current funding from Chevron, Suncor Energy, ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute.

In addition, the class will draw on guest instructors such as former Gov. Bill Ritter who is now director of CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy. Officials from industry and the Environmental Protection Agency also have been invited to speak.

The course addresses increased interest in natural gas production in Colorado and around the nation, particularly with the anticipated future development of oil and gas in the nearby Niobrara formation in northeast Colorado.

“I’m taking the class because it really looks like the natural gas industry is going to explode and also to get a better understanding of the energy future,” said Shannon McKibben, a senior in chemical and biological engineering.

In a recent class, Sutton discussed with students how geologists identify and uncover natural gas from rock formations. Sutton researches shale, the rock type that serves as both source and host for many of the natural gas deposits being actively developed. Her work focuses on relating chemical, mineralogical and textural characteristics of shales to the ease with which they transmit or accumulate fluids, including natural gas.

“Changes in how natural gas is being produced suggest that we may be able to use much more natural gas as a potential bridge between petroleum and renewables,” Sutton said.