Officials say former CU Boulder scientist did not separate public research from private company

A University of Colorado Boulder scientist known for his work on air quality and pollution was fired because his publicly funded research and his private business could not be separated.

Detlev Helmig was a research professor and scientist at CU Boulder’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research until he was recently terminated. Spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra confirmed he was no longer employed at the university but would not say when his employment ended.

Helmig’s departure was first reported by Western Wire, a news organization funded by a regional oil and gas association, the Western Energy Alliance.

Helmig founded Boulder A.I.R., a company that performs substantially similar work to his job at INSTAAR, Parra said.

Boulder A.I.R was registered as a limited liability company with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office in January 2018, according to state records.

“CU Boulder and Dr. Helmig worked to clearly separate the work performed and resources used by this commercial enterprise from the work and resources of the university,” Parra said in an email. “This is exceedingly important for the university as the university and its employees are stewards of research dollars from multiple sources. The university 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.”

Through email, Helmig declined to comment on his departure from CU Boulder.

Helmig most recently attracted attention for a paper that stated emissions from oil and gas production on the Front Range are largely underestimated, which sparked the introduction of new air quality bills by state legislators and prompted backlash from industry leaders.

Helmig was working on an air quality monitoring project with Boulder County, Parra said, and CU Boulder and INSTAAR are looking at ways to continue collecting and analyzing data for that project.

“INSTAAR has been working closely with the Boulder County Health Monitoring team on the process of transferring data and identifying how to continue the air quality monitoring as well as public access to data,” she said.

Boulder County officials were “surprised and saddened” to hear about Helmig’s ousting, said Commissioner Elise Jones.

The county has previously worked with Helmig to monitor the air at the Boulder Reservoir for ozone, methane, benzene and other substances, Jones said.

“Dr. Helmig’s research has been instrumental in shining the spotlight on the air pollution challenges we face in Boulder County, in particular, how the emissions from the intensive oil and gas development in Weld County are blowing across the county line, leading to increased smog and health concerns, as well as contributing to global climate change,” Jones wrote in an email.

“Dr. Helmig’s work helped spur state lawmakers and agencies to adopt stronger policies to control emissions and protect public health. We hope this critical work will be able to continue,” she wrote.

Helmig also worked with Longmont city officials to monitor air quality.

In March 2019, Longmont City Council gave city staff the go-ahead to prepare a contract with Helmig and his private company to collect and analyze data from sampling and analyzing atmospheric emissions from oil and gas operations near the city, with the sampling to be done at two locations, one at Union Reservoir east of Longmont and the other near Vance Brand Airport west of the city.

Deputy City Manager Dale Rademacher said in a Tuesday email that Longmont’s contract with Boulder Air was signed late last April and the work got underway last June and July. He said the initial startup cost was $403,342 for the Union Reservoir site and $154,905 for the airport site, with some additional funding for the setup of the two monitoring stations. That work was funded from the city’s 2019 budget and the first phase of the monitoring is anticipated to be completed this summer.

Rademacher said city staff anticipates reporting the results of that first round of monitoring to Council later this year and seeking Council’s direction about extending the contract and providing the necessary funding to do so.

He said the city’s expenses for the contract are being paid from Longmont’s oil and gas royalty revenues.

As for CU Boulder’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research’s termination of Helmig, Rademacher said in a separate email that “while we are disheartened to know that Dr. Helmig will no longer be doing his important work for the university, we have confirmed that he will still be conducting these critical air monitoring studies at Union Reservoir and Vance Brand Airport through his private company for the City of Longmont.

“The City holds a contract for air quality monitoring with Dr. Helmig’s private company, not the University, based on his personal expertise. The air quality monitoring at Union Reservoir, Vance Brand Airport and throughout the City of Longmont is of the highest importance to the City Council, and we plan to continue this work.

“The City is not familiar with the issues of Dr. Helmig’s relationship with the University, but feel confident that our contract is with Boulder Air and does not contemplate the use of University facilities or resources,” Rademacher wrote.

A spokesman for Energy In Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, described Helmig’s actions as “a clear abuse of public funds.”

“Yet, it’s still not clear if he’s bringing this publicly-funded research to his new company,” said spokesman William Allison. “Coloradans have a right to know if their tax dollars ended up supporting research that will now benefit Dr. Helmig’s private-sector work.”

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