Monitoring for invisible dangers

by Dr. Stephen Conley

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Wikimedia Commons/Earthworks
A damaged well below the surface at the Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility leaks methane in Los Angeles.

As communities across the country work to cut their emissions and ensure they are safe from environmental accidents, accurate testing of our air quality becomes critically important. That’s where my team comes in: We use our single-engine Mooney aircraft to measure air samples and test for greenhouse gases. In a catastrophic event like the Aliso Canyon methane leak or the BP oil spill, small aircraft become indispensable to a rapid response.

Government agencies, scientists and nonprofit organizations contract us to fly over oil and gas fields analyzing air samples for greenhouse gases and atmospheric data. I’ve done projects over the Julesburg Basin in Colorado, the Barnett Basin and Eagle Ford in Texas, even the Bakken Fields in North Dakota. This summer we’ll be measuring atmospheric methane in Alaska as part of a larger NASA study that aims to gain a better understanding of the vulnerability of Arctic ecosystems to changes in climate. These atmospheric studies don’t just improve our understanding of our environment, but can have a real and sometimes immediate impact on public safety and people who are in the path of an environmental disaster.

In October 2015, natural gas was leaking from a well in Aliso Canyon in Southern California and residents were starting to get sick. The California Energy Commission asked me to test the air and figure out what we were dealing with. Normal air usually contains about 2 parts per million (ppm) of methane. My first reading of the Aliso Canyon leak was 50 ppm a mile from the well, the highest concentration I’d ever seen. It was only after we delivered solid evidence of a substantial leak that the state response kicked in, evacuating over 5,700 local families while the gas company worked around the clock to plug the leak and mitigate its effects.

Our research showed that by the time the leak was plugged 112 days later, over 107,000 tons of methane and 8,000 tons of ethane had been released from the canyon. That is the same impact on global warming as 1,735,404 cars in a year. Aliso Canyon was the largest methane leak in our country’s history and had a larger climate impact than the BP oil spill. Now we are contracted by the state to continually test and monitor the leak to ensure that public safety and environmental impact are not at risk again. Providing this service through general aviation prompted a faster response than would otherwise be possible and helps to prevent future risks.

My team also works with towns and cities across the Western U.S. who are trying to reduce emissions to meet EPA ozone standards. By utilizing our aircraft to help them pinpoint where emissions are coming from, we can help communities figure out how to use their resources most effectively. Trying to do the same tests from the ground would be inefficient, incredibly expensive and not give them the necessary three-dimensional analysis of their environment. My team can fly almost anywhere in the country in hours and get the job done quickly and cost-effectively.

General aviation doesn’t just provide critical services in environmental disasters, but supports emergency and specialized medical care, law enforcement, firefighting and search and rescue. But some of these efforts are at risk now. Large-scale commercial operators now want to remove air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Congressional oversight and give it over to a private board controlled by those with commercial interests. They point to the Canadian system as their model, but our system is much more diverse. I know firsthand that for every time we land at an airport in Canada, we receive multiple bills with the fees they charge. For a small business like mine, that bureaucratic and financial burden takes time and resources away from our clients.

Commercial interests shouldn’t be making decisions about taxes and fees for using our public airspace, who gets access to which airports or how quickly our emergency aviation services can respond in a crisis. It’s up to us to tell Congress to not risk this critical resource and reject privatization.

Dr. Stephen Conley is the President, Owner and Chief Pilot of Scientific Aviation flying out of Boulder and Auburn, California. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California Davis and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.