Panel Emphasizes Trust and Openness Needed in CO Fracking Debate

This morning the University of Colorado Denver Buechner Institute for Governance hosted a panel titled, “Strategies for Resolving Environmental Conflicts: Lessons for the Hydraulic Fracturing Debate in Colorado.” The purpose of the panel was to discuss how lessons learned from other environmental issue conflicts could be applied to the work being done by Governor Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force. The panel basically said conflicts such as the one in Colorado are challenging, but they can be overcome with a trusted source of information, face-to-face communication, and willingness to negotiate. The task force has a difficult job ahead of it because all three of those are in short supply right now.

Panel Members

  • Matt Lepore, Director of Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)
  • Todd Bryan, a Senior Associate at The Keystone Center
  • Mike Hughes, President of Hughes Collaboration
  • Tamra Pearson d’Estree, Professor and Co-Director of Conflict Resolution Institute, Korbel School, University of Denver

Discussion

I watched the panel via the webcast. Mr. Lepore provided the opening comments. I missed his beginning statements because I was out walking the dog. The two key points I took from his finishing comments were:

1) Who do you get your information from? We need an unbiased source that is trusted by all participants. This could be a university or other independent organization. It obviously won’t be the state government or industry because there is not much trust in them by the citizens of the affected communities.

2) Possible outcomes of the governor’s task force include changes to state law or changes to the COGCC’s authorities.

The rest of the panel members then took a few minutes each to make their own statements. Here are the high points from each of them.

Todd Bryan

  • He asked if what we are dealing with is a whether or how question. Whether or not we should conduct hydraulic fracturing in Colorado? Or, how should we conduct hydraulic fracturing to ensure the safety of our communities?
  • Scenario modeling is one approach to address the how question. Currently, a land use tool is being applied to local communities to see how oil and gas development impacts them.
  • If Boulder becomes a municipality, they could set standards for the oil and gas products they purchase. A collection of similar entities, whether cities or utility companies, could drive a change in the oil and gas industry via the market.

Mike Hughes

  • He discussed a project he worked on in Huerfano County, Colorado. When Shell coordinated land use permits with the local communities, a stipulation was to hold stakeholder meetings. Mr. Hughes was hired by Shell to moderate those meetings. He said it was a very effective process and encouraged other communities to similarly engage with industry. You can read more about this project here.

Tamra Pearson d’Estree

  • Problems like the ongoing fracking debate in Colorado are challenging because they involve multiple issues, are about values, are multi-jurisdictional, involve multiple forums, have uncertainty, actors differ in their perceived types and assessments of risk, and trust is needed.
  • Important to change the frame on how we get the necessary information. We need to change from seeking facts to seeking values.
  • Science can answer the how question but not the whether one. That is up to the government and the citizens.
  • We need to define the questions and then we agree on a neutral party to gather the information we need to answer them.
  • Negotiations work best if each side has all the information they need. This helps to realize joint gains and to understand the other side’s perspective.
  • The process we use matters so that stakeholders feel they have a role in the outcome and they have a voice. If the process is done inclusively, stakeholders may be willing to accept a less than ideal outcome since they had a role.

Questions and Answers

A Q&A session followed the panel members’ comments. In the interest of time and brevity, I will not list the questions or all the answers here. Please let me know if you want to know what was asked and all the answers. Here are the highlights from the responses:

  • Mr. Lepore: The state can do a better job at being more accessible to its citizens to ensure a balance with industry’s access.
  • Mr. Hughes: I am concerned about environmental justice. We don’t want an outcome where rich counties can keep fracking out and then the burden is assumed by poor counties who don’t have the same resources.
  • Mr. Lepore: The COGCC was given additional authority recently to issue stiffer penalties on bad actors. He feels fracking is both a whether and how question at the local level. The larger, better funded oil and gas companies are making advances in techniques and safety that the smaller companies can’t afford. However, it is a daunting process to legislate out the lesser capable companies.
  • Dr. Bryan: Companies are meeting the state’s standards and saying that is enough. Moving beyond compliance is a trust builder though. Unfortunately, industry hasn’t done a good enough job of building trust.
  • Dr. Pearson d’Estree: Communities are not often in agreement upon what their local interests are. Among the different actors in a problem such as this, the difference is not so much in the values themselves, as in how those values are prioritized.
  • Dr. Bryan: The political process is working for industry, so they don’t see a need to change. There needs to be more pressure on them to be more transparent.
  • Mr. Hughes: Personal relations through face-to-face meetings encouraged information sharing in Huerfano County. Shell was much more open in meeting #13 than they were in meeting #1. So problems like this need to be worked out by people meeting.
  • Mr. Lepore: Local communities are not interested in full regulation of oil and gas. They want to have a say in where drilling is conducted.

Conclusion

The panel was interesting in that we heard from conflict resolution specialists rather than government officials, industry supporters, or concerned citizens. Although there were no major breakthroughs or groundbreaking insights, forums like this are necessary for the very reasons the panelists touched upon: information sharing, face-to-face communication, and an equal understanding from which to negotiate.

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