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Can the oil and gas industry fix its public image in Colorado?

 

Last week, I drove over the mountains from High Country News HQ in Paonia, Colo., to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit, an annual confab for the oil and gas industry – complete with a balloon drop wherein suited attendees throw elbows as they jockey for prizes -- hosted by its powerful state trade group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. HCN doesn’t usually attend industry conferences, loaded as they often are with technical information more valuable to CEOs than reporters. But this one seemed different: COGA President Tisha Conoly Schuller, an environmentally-savvy Stanford-educated liberal, had brought several surprising speakers, including the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, who’s best known for pushing an Anthropocene-inspired pragmatism in the environmental movement.

Early Wednesday morning, before a slightly groggy, still-trickling-in-with-lattes crowd, Kareiva gave a compelling speech on the importance of factoring peoples’ needs into conservation efforts to ensure they’re relevant and effective, and working alongside corporations to minimize the environmental impacts of inevitable industrial development. Afterward, Schuller sat down on stage in an armchair across from the controversial scientist. “One of the things we struggle with is spending a lot of time reacting to … positions we view as extreme, such as banning (hydraulic fracturing),” she began. She was referring to public concern over the possible health impacts of the practice, which involves firing a mix of water, sand and chemicals down a well bore to fracture rock and release hydrocarbons, and the intense local battles it has inspired over the industry’s expansion on the Front Range. “We want to have a dialog that moves to the middle. But the reality is that the press and the meetings are driven by people who have an extreme agenda. What recommendation do you have for us on how we address and interact with that reality?”

Activists rally for the Colorado anti-fracking group, Erie Rising.

“Drama (and) conflict sell. But so does vision,” Kareiva replied. “Be visionary.”

What does that mean for an industry that has stuggled to define itself as a positive force (it is, after all, responsible for a significant reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as more power plants switch from coal to natural gas), even as fracktivists paint it as a plague on clean water and air, and a scourge on powerless communities? This soul-searching was a major conference theme, carried through several sessions by academics, state officials and industry CEOs alike, many of them emphasizing compassion, empathy and open, thoughtful engagement with concerned communities as ways forward through increasing polarization.

But when I asked various attendees how the industry might come to the middle itself, many felt that the necessary work was mostly a matter of reassuring concerned members of the public that fracking truly is safe, that oil and gas employees also care about the environment and the safety of their own families, and that hydrocarbons are foundational to society and the basic function of all our lives, from the polypro we wear camping to the gasoline we use to drive our kids to soccer practice. But with the exception of the fracking question, who doesn’t already know those things on some level? And isn’t presuming to educate condescending? To be really effective, David Ropiek, a former television journalist who now consults on human risk perception and risk communication, suggested in an afternoon presentation, companies must “give up on the idea that just how you communicate to people with words and messages and PR is enough. People take your measure a whole lot more by what you do.”

Which is why my ears perked when I heard an executive from Noble Energy speak about a $500,000 groundwater monitoring effort in Weld County. The company, one of the largest operators in northeastern Colorado’s Denver-Julesberg Basin, is participating under the auspices of Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Energy Consortium.

The demonstration project would complement new state rules -- which call for detailed analysis of groundwater samples taken before and after drilling -- with realtime, continuous monitoring of the freshwater aquifer 200 to 300 feet below 10 of Noble’s multi-well pads. The probes won’t test for a suite of specific contaminants, which would be too expensive for broad application and limit the number researchers could screen for, explains Ken Carlson, a CSU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Instead, they will retrieve data on  aspects of the water’s basic chemistry such as conductivity that, were they to change, could signal possible contamination and would trigger a deeper analysis.

Once the monitoring wells are drilled, the data would be transmitted to a CSU server and posted to a website accessible to the public, which researchers hope to have live in December. While 10 wells aren’t enough to produce statistically significant results, once the method is proven, it could be scaled up to provide systemic monitoring that researchers hope will help settle the debate over what is (or isn’t) happening underground. “We’re trying to stay away from the bigger picture of whether shale gas is the right thing to do,” Carlson says. “This (development) is happening. Without endorsing it or saying it’s bad, let’s see if we can make it better as it’s going on.”

Noble has a seat on the steering committee overseeing the project – which includes former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, the environmental group Western Resource Advocates and the state Department of Natural Resources among others – and kicked in $50,000 of the study’s cost, but it cannot influence results or whether they are published or not.

What’s in it for Noble? In two words, public trust,” says Manager of Government Relations Chad Calvert. “There are a lot of claims that fracking for oil and gas affects groundwater. Our engineers don’t feel that way, but the public does. This is about trying to show people that these operations can be done safely.” And if it shows the opposite? “Then we need to fix it,” Calvert says. “We need to understand it and mitigate it. It’s a learning opportunity too.”

Winning that broader public trust is going to be a hard battle, though, no matter how forward-thinking, proactive and responsible any given company is. “Forgive me oil and gas industry, but a lot of people think (you’re) not all that trustworthy,” Ropiek pointed out in his conference presentation. “And by the way, you could be 99 percent trustworthy in this room, but if one of you screws it up, that taints you all. I’ve talked to lots of you today and you’ve said, ‘We’re heavily regulated.’ Well that’s awesome, unless people don’t trust the regulator.”

So it doesn’t much help that, a few days before the conference, the L.A. Times reported on a leaked PowerPoint presentation that suggested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had abandoned an inquiry into whether water wells in Dimock, Penn., had been contaminated by natural gas development, despite staffers’ conclusions, “based on data collected over 4 1/2 years, … that ‘methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality.’ (And) that ‘methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and other gas well work.’ " Even so, an EPA spokeswoman told the newspaper, "The sampling and an evaluation of the particular circumstances at each home did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action."

Earlier this year, the agency backed off a similar study – this one much more strongly linking contamination of water in Pavillion, Wyo., to oil and gas development. Though the agency said it stands by its results, it balked before peer review could test its conclusions, handing the assessment over to Wyoming after intense pressure from the industry and the state. In yet another instance, the EPA “abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Tex., was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents' faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding,” Abrahm Lustgarten reported for Propublica and HCN in July: “Environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.”

In that context, what indeed does it mean for the industry to be visionary? Perhaps it’s as simple as letting go of the constant political wrangling and allowing these questions to be explored and resolved in a public, highly visible way by researchers without their own axe to grind, and then simply addressing the results, instead of denying them. How else will the general public understand what tradeoffs are and aren’t involved in extracting this fuel, and make informed decisions to avoid those that cut the deepest?

Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor. Image courtesy Flickr user Erie Rising.