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In April 2017, an undetected natural gas leak migrated underground, accumulated in a home in Firestone, Colorado, and caused an explosion, killing two people.
In an effort to prevent more tragedies like this, the state of Colorado has designated several research projects, including $1.1 million to Colorado State University researchers, intended to expand knowledge around oil and gas flowline monitoring and air emissions.
The money will come from an $18.25 million penalty the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is seeking against Kerr McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, which is being held responsible for the Firestone incident. At the time, the faulty gas flowline linked to the explosion was owned by Anadarko Petroleum, which was acquired by Occidental last year.
The commission has earmarked some of the funds for a research group led by Daniel Zimmerle, CSU Energy Institute senior research associate, whose primary expertise is in natural gas emissions and leak detection. The funding is shared with researchers at University of Texas at Arlington.
Zimmerle’s team will embark on a two-year project for developing and characterizing leak detection technologies for underground flowlines, looking at gas migration scenarios in different soil types and weather conditions.
Work at METEC
The work will first take place at CSU’s Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center (METEC), near the Foothills Campus, which models different components of natural gas facilities, including well pads and underground pipelines. CSU researchers and client companies regularly use METEC, first funded by a $4.5 million U.S. Department of Energy contract in 2016, to field-test new methane sensing technologies and evaluate their performance on real natural gas equipment. Later, the researchers will apply their developed screening methods to other field conditions, working with the state oil and gas commission and natural gas operators across the Denver-Julesburg Basin.
In Firestone, gas had migrated more than a hundred feet from a parted flowline, into the house, and accumulated undetected. With the new project, Zimmerle’s team will seek to understand, first, how such underground migration works. “How far do these leaks migrate, and under what conditions?” he said.
Using the METEC facility, the CSU team will characterize leaks from typical flowlines over a range of weather, soil conditions and flow rates. Tests will include measuring the size and concentration of plumes, in 3D, both in the ground and above the leaks. They will also look at underground spread of gas emissions using buried probes, with the expectation that hydrocarbons that are heavier than air will propagate differently than light hydrocarbons.
Underexplored area of research
Zimmerle says underground natural gas migration and leak detection “is a surprisingly poorly understood area.”
“We really don’t know much about how gas migrates underground, particularly from large flow-rate events,” Zimmerle said. Most of the leak detection solutions tested at METEC, which Zimmerle leads, are based on above-ground leaks. Such leaks seem to behave very differently than underground leaks of the same size, the researchers say.
In November 2019, the state oil and gas commission implemented stronger rules for gas flowlines and is also collecting information about where existing lines are located. Still, projects like Zimmerle’s should provide key insights into best practices to monitor these lines, given that flowlines and residential areas are increasingly located near each other.
Settlement next steps
The penalty money funding the research projects is the largest-ever settlement sought by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Next in the enforcement process, Kerr McGee/Occidental Petroleum will answer to the commission at an April 6 hearing at 1 p.m. in the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver; the research projects will not start until a final settlement is reached.