BOULDER, Colo.—Yet another Zoom meeting beckoned, pulling University of Colorado scientist Detlev Helmig from his data. On Monday, April 7, 2020 he clicked into a meeting organized by Merritt Turetsky, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) where Helmig worked. He thought his newest boss might want to clarify lab access rules during the coronavirus pandemic.
INSTAAR's former interim director Gifford Miller also appeared on the screen, which Helmig did not take as a good sign. Turetsky became uncharacteristically formal and asked if Helmig minded if the call was recorded. He didn't. She asked if Helmig had received the email. He hadn't. By this time, Helmig was getting nervous. "I thought, `Gosh, this is going to be weird,'" he recalled.
It got weirder in a hurry. He refreshed his screen and opened a document that might as well have been a bomb: a termination letter. His boss and former boss told him he was fired, effective immediately. The allegations? Improper use of public funds and compromising his "professional loyalty to the university."
Helmig sat in his office, stunned, and contemplated the academic equivalent of a court-martial. The charges didn't make sense. In his 25-year career as an atmospheric chemist, he had produced hundreds of scientific publications in his field's most prestigious journals. He had been a principal investigator (PI) or co-investigator on tens of millions of dollars of grants that took him from the Arctic to the Antarctic—netting the University of Colorado (CU) millions of dollars from their substantial cut of the awards.
The 58-year-old German-born scientist had earned a reputation for thrift among his colleagues and grad students when spending grant money, taking buses to the airport and staying in shared-room hostels while on grant-funded research trips. He drives a 1986 Volkswagen van when he isn't riding his bike, transformed his Boulder home into a net-zero abode and regularly lectures grad students about the importance of spending taxpayer money wisely, because the public supports their science.
Helmig reflexively checked his email and realized that the flow of messages he customarily received from colleagues around the world had stopped. Not fifteen minutes after he left the Zoom meeting, he sent an email to himself from a different account. A sobering auto response shot back: "The individual you are attempting to contact is no longer an employee at the University of Boulder Colorado."
'It's Incredibly Important Work'
Helmig's firing was the latest skirmish in Colorado's long war over fracking. Since 2017, he has established and operated air monitoring stations that continuously measure emissions linked to oil and gas production that contribute to the Denver region's persistently dirty air. When he began, these were the only continuous monitoring operations in a state with approximately 53,000 operating oil and gas wells.
His work started as a collaboration among CU, Boulder County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. But Helmig's working relationship with the university was strained when he used his outside consulting firm to help expand air monitoring to neighboring jurisdictions. Even though he successfully negotiated a memorandum of understanding last year with the university to set up air monitors in the nearby city of Longmont, the university institute where he worked began an audit of his activities, marking the beginning of his troubles.
There is no disputing the importance of Helmig's work. His measurements have provided critical new information and corroborated what many other scientists have documented in sporadic, short-term studies: actual emissions from Colorado's oil and gas complexes exceed the levels industry self-reports, and also exceed modeling estimates used by state and federal regulators. Helmig also found that chemicals associated with oil and gas production rode the wind to areas with no oil and gas activity, such as the city of Boulder.
These leaks include methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as a suite of chemicals linked to cancers, respiratory illnesses, low-birth weight babies and a variety of other ailments. These emissions also contribute to the Denver region's stubbornly high ozone levels. This year, the EPA downgraded Colorado to "serious" non-attainment of a key federal air quality standard.
The region's deteriorating air quality coincided with rapid population growth, a torrent of oil and gas activity and a laissez-drill period of Colorado politics. But November 2018's election gave Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature and a progressive governor, Jared Polis. In April 2019, the legislature passed SB-181 to better regulate emissions that form ozone's chemical building blocks. (Ozone isn't emitted. It's an atmospheric collaboration among hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and sunlight.)
Politicians, regulators and increasingly agitated citizen groups all cited Helmig's work as Colorado began a tortuous "rulemaking" process to implement SB-181. Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said he doesn't understand why CU has been so aggressive with Helmig. "Researchers and professors do consulting work and have outside businesses all the time," he said in an interview.
Helmig's Boulder County data, coupled with data from Longmont and now the city and county of Broomfield, Fenberg said, will be critical for lawmakers as they hammer out how SB-181 will be implemented.
So little air-quality monitoring is going on, he said, that state and local governments are scrounging to collect the data. "It's incredibly important work," Fenberg said. "The industry is obviously not going to do it."
That much was clear from the gleeful headline published in Western Wire, a conservative media organization sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance, following Helmig's firing: "CU Dismisses Prominent Atmospheric Researcher With Activist Ties Over Blurring of Public-Private Research."
Turetsky, Helmig's boss, replied to a request for comment in an email: "I respect the privacy of Dr. Helmig and cannot provide specific comments." In his defense, she did note: "This personnel decision was not related to research directions, discoveries or results."
Helmig's attorney, Joe Salazar, a former state representative now on the front lines of the fracking wars as the executive director of Colorado Rising, a citizens group, said he has had to file an open records request with CU to obtain information on his client's firing. The cost, he was told, would be $2,000, and he has yet to receive the documents, as required by law.
The university said it hadn't provided the information because its audit wasn't complete, Salazar said, and asked: "Why would you terminate someone if the investigative audit wasn't finished?"
Colleagues normally reticent to speak to the press about personal matters responded to inquiries into Helmig's character and reputation. "I am startled by this," said Jody Deming, the Karl M. Banse Endowed Professor of Oceanography at the University of Washington, who has co-edited the scientific journal Elementa with Helmig since 2012. In a phone interview, she said that Helmig is a "top-notch" scientist with the highest standards of integrity: "dedicated, professional, fair and productive." The alleged reason for his firing simply doesn't make sense to Deming. "Nothing about this fits the Detlev I know," she said.
A group of 39 organizations and 162 individuals wrote an open letter to CU President Mark Kennedy on May 5, stating: "Many citizens in the state believe that [Helmig's] science in service of the people is the root cause of his firing."
Helmig, for his part, vehemently disputes the allegation in his termination letter that he has not been "transparent" with the university. He maintains that he was not given guidance when he asked for it in setting up his consulting firm, and was ultimately provided with advice that was incomplete, confusing, contradictory or inaccurate. He said that he made repeated, good-faith efforts to be transparent and fulfill his long list of CU duties. If he fell short, he said, it wasn't for lack of effort. He has the emails to prove it.
A Crash Course in Colorado Fracking
Helmig's firing came nearly a decade after hydraulic fracturing, combined with horizontal drilling, surpassed conventional vertical well drilling in the U.S. in 2011. The process often involves drilling multiple wells more than a mile deep and often more than a mile in radius from a single well pad, then injecting them under high pressure with water, sand and a chemical stew.
The technique is engineered to "frack" open deep underground hydrocarbon reserves locked in shale rock formations. In Colorado, these oil and gas reserves are co-mingled in the same rock vaults with a suite of volatile organic compounds and other material.
A Colorado oil and gas boom ensued as prices rocketed from less than $40 a barrel to consistently exceeding $100 between 2011 and 2014. When the spot price for West Texas Intermediate oil peaked in 2014 at $107.95, Colorado was engulfed in a full-blown hydrocarbon frenzy. (Since Covid-19, oil dipped to below $0 per barrel, and now is hovering just above $30).
Drilling rigs flooded the state, joining a vast reordering of world energy markets that ultimately led to the U.S. becoming the world's largest energy producer. Colorado's Denver-Julesburg basin, located primarily in Weld County to the north of Denver, accounted for almost half of the state's wells. By 2018, Colorado surpassed Alaska, California and Wyoming as the country's fifth-largest oil producing state.
At the same time, Colorado was also undergoing a seismic demographic shift. The state population has grown to 5.8 million, up 35 percent since 2000. Suburbs north of Denver approved new housing developments on top of existing oil wells, and rigs from new, mini-industrial sites began drilling next to tract homes.
Every election since the first municipal fracking ban passed in 2012 featured a new citizen-led effort to rein in the industry. Tens of millions of dollars in industry PR campaigns and campaign contributions successfully beat them back. In 2012 and 2013, a number of cities and counties passed citizen-backed bans or moratoria on fracking.
Then, in 2014, CU became further embroiled in the oil and gas controversies during the tenure of former President Bruce Bensen, who had ties to the oil and gas industry and had been skirting the edges of climate change denialism. As a citizen-sponsored ballot initiative sought to impose larger setbacks between oil wells and residential developments, CU's Leeds School of Business released a report that many felt overstated job and revenue losses should the ballot measure pass. Connections between the school of business and industry funding were later unearthed in several newspapers, leading to charges that the university had participated in "Frackademia."
Meanwhile, citizens packed hearing rooms to complain about emissions from the fracking process, including from truck trips, heavy equipment, compressors, power generation, drilling operations, spills and both intentional and unintentional releases.
At times, restricted gas pipeline capacity impeded companies' ability to move their product, leading companies to "flare"—burn excess gas—or "release" millions of cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere. In many cases, these emissions are released with permits from both the state health department and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
Scientists catalogued these emissions by conducting "top-down" aerial measurements and "bottom-up" ground monitoring, reporting significant emissions that contribute to ozone production (smog) as well as chemicals, such as benzene, that are toxic to humans.
In Colorado and around the country, scientists published study after study documenting various environmental impacts that fracking had on water, air and human health, from industrial accidents to spills and unexplained animal deaths. Some scientists, including Helmig, trained instruments to look for underreported emissions in ways that neither industry nor state regulators were doing.
Methane, the primary component of "natural gas," is also a potent greenhouse gas, and scientists have come to realize that methane is a much bigger contributor to climate change than originally thought when it was first touted as a "bridge fuel" from coal.
In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that all local fracking bans were unconstitutional.
Fracktivists pressed on. They flooded committee hearing rooms at the state house, disrupted COGCC meetings and rallied for new ballot petitions. Activists ran for city and county councils, mayorships and the state legislature. And won.
But until recently, the previously Republican-controlled Colorado senate blocked every effort to change laws that favored industry. In April 2017, an explosion at a house in Firestone, 30 miles north of Denver, killed two and injured two others, an accident caused by an abandoned gas pipeline.
After the Firestone tragedy, the court of public opinion swung even farther in the fractivists' favor. Many were desperate for somebody to prove what anybody living with an oil well next to their children's school yard or backyard barbeque could tell you without gas chromatography or epidemiological studies: A bunch of smelly, scary things emanated from those well pads.
A Folk Hero Emerges in Boulder
Helmig emerged from the ivory tower into the public eye after an explosion and fire at an oil and gas site in December 2017 injured a worker and rattled the neighbors, this time in Windsor, a town east of Ft. Collins. It didn't take long for the lanky, 6'5" former high school track star who drove a red VW around Boulder to become something of a folk hero to citizens who had butted heads with the oil and gas industry for nearly a decade.
In 2017, Helmig began accumulating emissions data at Boulder Reservoir, on the outskirts of the college town. Boulder County had reached out to Helmig after Boulder's fracking moratorium had been overturned in court. Officials wanted a "baseline" air quality study before an expected torrent of new well applications. His preliminary data, shared on a heavily viewed public website, showed that Boulder County air quality suffered when winds blew from neighboring Weld County.
Soon, Boulder's neighbor to the north, Longmont, wanted Helmig to conduct monitoring for them, since they were even closer to active well sites than Boulder. Longmont council members contacted him.
Without realizing it at the time, Helmig was entering a danger zone. He tried to arrange a contract that was similar to the one he had with CU and Boulder County, where CU received payments, or "indirect costs," from the county to cover overhead and equipment rental. The state health department also provided support for the Boulder monitoring, as did the environmental group Earthworks.
But Longmont was in a hurry and CU's bureaucracy was slow—and costly. "It just got too convoluted to work with the university on this," said Longmont Councilwoman Joan Peck.
Longmont asked if they could contract with Helmig through his private company, Boulder A.I.R.
He had founded the company in 2018 to continue a funding relationship with the German government's equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, after CU refused to extend exemptions it had previously made to reduce the university's customary take of 54 percent to cover "indirect costs." (INSTAAR usually takes an additional six percent). Helmig used his firm to continue atmospheric monitoring work related to the 1987 Montreal Protocol "ozone hole" agreement, without using CU resources for the project).
When the Longmont request for air monitoring came in, Helmig ran the proposal by more than a half dozen offices at CU, including the Office of Conflicts of Interest & Commitment Compliance Section of the Research & Innovation Office, Strategic Resources and Support in the Associate Vice Chancellor's office, Office of Contracts and Grants, Office of General Counsel, Budget & Fiscal Planning, Debt & Asset Manager, the Campus Controller's Office and INSTAAR's own administration.
Ultimately, he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with CU on Aug. 15, 2019, in which the university gave its blessing. "We value your work and this community project with the City of Longmont," it stated. CU would receive reimbursement for some equipment rentals. The MOU also included numerous, common, provisions: strict reporting requirements and a clear separation of "CU-sponsored projects and Company-funded work." The MOU also included this boiler-plate sentence: "violations of policy may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment."
But as the MOU was completing its bureaucratic voyage, Helmig received a note from former INSTAAR Interim Director Gifford Miller (from the Zoom call), telling Helmig there were "serious concerns" about the contract with Longmont and "an audit of your lab...has been initiated." The inquiries, Miller wrote, were being "monitored at the highest levels of the university."
Helmig, who was on vacation when he received the note, wrote back: "Over the past five months I have communicated/met with I think six CU administrative folks from different offices to get advice and direction on how to make these arrangements and set up the contract following University regulations. The outcome is a service contract mechanism that I believe you signed about a month ago. We followed exactly what CU asked us to do."
"So," he continued, "I am really puzzled who is now voicing these 'concerns'?"
(Miller, reached by email, wrote, "Unfortunately, I am not able to discuss any aspect of this case.")
'We Asked Dr. Helmig to Help'
By the end of December 2019, Helmig had multiple data points to suggest that the oil and gas industry was displeased with his results. After he presented his Boulder Reservoir findings to the Air Quality Control Commission late last year, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association asked for all of his raw data and posed 21 time-consuming questions to answer.
Helmig contacted CU's lawyers, asking for help with a legal framework for a data-sharing agreement. Although CU supported the Boulder County work, the university declined to help. "It took me a month to reply," he said.
Then, as he was setting up his Longmont monitoring sites in early 2020, the City and County of Broomfield made a request to set up similar monitoring devices in a hurry. The burgeoning exurb, halfway between Boulder and Denver, was about to get fracked again.
A few years earlier, Broomfield had contracted with Colorado State University and Ajax-Analytics, a private company, to monitor emissions. Broomfield Councilmember Jean Lim said there were concerns that the monitoring system wasn't working well, after residents experienced noxious odors coming from new oil and gas sites without Ajax detecting any added emissions.
"We knew the right data wasn't being captured," Lim said. "We asked Dr. Helmig to help."
Broomfield was concerned that if Helmig ran the monitoring job through CU, it would take too long to approve. "We didn't have that kind of time," said council member Laurie Anderson, a former Republican who became so fed up with oil and gas development in her backyard that she ran for office—and won. "We could do this more quickly and for less money if we went with Dr. Helmig," she said.
Helmig, figuring that he was doing the same monitoring program he had done for Longmont, which CU had already approved, built some equipment in his garage and set it up in Broomfield. This might have been a career-killing oversight, since the Longmont MOU stated that the agreement was a "one-time exemption."
He doesn't get that, either, since he was doing the same thing that had already been through the bureaucratic wringer, only for a different public entity. "If a law professor does outside work, does he have to declare every one of his clients?" Helmig wonders.
In early March 2020, he met with Turetsky, newly appointed as INSTAAR's director, who explained that there were ongoing concerns about the way he was juggling his business and his university responsibilities.
The next day, March 10, Helmig wrote to thank Turetsky and offered suggestions about how to steer clear of any future conflicts. "I fully agree that there needs to be a clear and clean line between Boulder A.I.R. contracts and my University activities," he wrote. "I have been trying to improve upon this situation over the past six months by clearly separating the activities and resources. But obviously, there is still a lot of confusion about this and more that needs to be done." Turetsky did not reply to Helmig.
After Helmig was fired, a university spokesperson told Western Wire that officials had "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."
Salazar, Helmig's attorney, found the statement highly unusual and said its appearance in an industry outlet was curious. "The University of Colorado is well-known for staying silent on personnel matters," he said. "The CU statement is inconsistent with the reason provided to Dr. Helmig advising him of his termination from employment."
'A Very Good Scientist'
Helmig's supporters believe his firing confirms deeply troubling trends around the nation: scientists are increasingly seen as targets if they dare to speak out beyond calibrated journal articles. Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the New York-based Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, is not directly involved in Helmig's case, but said the circumstances sound familiar.
"Scientists who speak out end up with targets on their backs," said Kurtz. "If he wasn't in this controversial arena, the university probably would have given him an accounting class instead of firing him."
For Helmig, there was an added complication. He was a research scientist, not a tenured faculty member, and was required to bring in grant money to cover his salary, as well as "Facilities and Administrative Costs." He estimates that grants on which he has been a PI or co-PI have totaled some $30 million, which also funded graduate and undergraduate student stipends and tuition. Almost all of those grants paid some F&A costs as well, totaling into multiple millions.
Research grants are called "soft money," and researchers must constantly apply for new ones. Soft money comes from granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and only about a quarter of NSF grant applications are funded. The process of getting a grant, he said, is "like walking barefoot through the Sahara."
Soft-money scientists have little or no job security beyond their own reputational ability to keep receiving increasingly competitive grants. Research professors like Helmig may be a PI on some grants, a co-PI on another, and are written into other grants at the same time. Similar to the way lawyers working on multiple cases must bill their hours to each client in increments, scientists must account for their time. "You do it to the best of your judgment," Helmig said.
James White, a paleoclimatologist and former INSTAAR director who was Helmig's boss for 10 years before becoming Dean of the College of Arts and Science, understands Helmig's situation. "It's hard being a soft-money scientist," said White, who was not involved in Helmig's firing.
He said in an interview that Helmig is "a very good scientist. We butted heads sometimes, but that's what scientists do," said White. "We are trained to be curmudgeons."
White does not believe the university buckled to pressure from the industry and is not privy to the details of CU's case against Helmig. In any case, White said, Helmig was conducting important science and doing it well. "Whatever the reasons he was let go," White said, "there is no indication I've heard that it's because of research misconduct."
White called Helmig's work "crucial" and his contribution "significant" because most air monitoring programs only collect sporadic emission measurements, then average the result. This fails to measure what White calls the "fat tails" of emissions—the kind of chemical spikes that Helmig's continuous monitoring is recording now in Boulder, Longmont and Broomfield.
To Helmig's many defenders, the timing of the termination was deeply suspect, coming just days after an article appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera quoting Helmig discussing unusually high hydrocarbon readings in neighboring Longmont during the pandemic shutdown.
The article noted that emissions related to oil and gas activity, such as benzene and ethane, showed unusual, short-lived spikes. "It's like somebody opened a spray can," Helmig told the reporter.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) complained to the Boulder Daily Camera about the article. The paper removed the story from its website and printed a front-page "retraction" that included statements provided by COGA. Fracktivists cried "foul" and said the industry's pressure was part of an orchestrated national campaign to discredit science—and scientists.
Dan Haley, COGA's executive director, takes great exception to the notion that his industry is anti-science. "We are an industry of scientists, from geologists and engineers, to air, water, and land-use environmental management experts. Science drives everything we do as an industry," he wrote in an email. "We're not afraid of science or data," he said. "But we are weary of those who twist it for their political gain."
Helmig is distressed that his firing will compromise his ability to continue his work. While his contracts with local communities will continue, Helmig's ability to receive funding from public agencies such as the NSF is in limbo, since grants are made to institutions rather than individuals.
Helmig said he has no real interest in running a business, except as a way to best use his science in the public interest. Nor does he consider himself a fracktivist, as industry media has alleged.
"I'm not an anti-fracking guy," he said. "I drive a car. I like to get in a plane to visit my mother in Germany." He sees his role as a scientist to "provide valuable, careful data to policymakers to help them make well-informed decisions."
Helmig can't make sense of these events. His local monitoring contracts are minuscule compared to some of his long-term international grants, much less the University of Colorado's nearly $5 billion budget for 2019-2020. He shakes his head over a Skype call and asks, "How does this go to the highest levels of the university?"
As for Helmig's "professional loyalty" to CU: At 10 a.m. on April 7, approximately two hours before he was fired, Helmig had submitted a "rapid" National Science Foundation grant proposal for a one-year project entitled, "Changes in Emissions and Associated Impacts on Atmospheric Composition and Chemistry in the Northern Colorado Front Range from the COVID-19 Pandemic."
The proposal requires a list of "Co-authors on any book, article, report, abstract or paper with collaboration in the last 48 months" and "collaborators on projects, such as funded grants, graduate research or others in the last 48 months." The list includes the names of nearly 300 scientists and collaborators from 20 countries—another way that CU benefits from Helmig's wide-ranging research interests and global network.
In the $182,456 grant proposal, CU is written in for 54% of the "direct costs," which totals nearly $64,000. Helmig's share? $38,566.
Daniel Glick is co-founder of Boulder, Colorado-based The Story Group. He is a former Newsweek Washington correspondent and special correspondent covering the Rocky Mountain West. In 2018, he shared the National Press Association's Thomas B. Stokes award for best energy and environment writing for a story about an explosion and fire at an oil and gas facility in Colorado.