The fractured terrain of oil and gas opposition

In one of the West’s biggest arguments, the battle lines are complicated and opaque.

A new cartography for us to master,
In whose legend we read where we are bound:
Terra infirma, a stranger land, and vaster.
Or have we always stood on shaky ground?


—A.E. Stallings, “Aftershocks”




Time spent on digging in
May prove expensive.

—Aristophanes, The Frogs

The public discussion of hydraulic fracturing continues to founder in an atmosphere thick with resentment, defensiveness and cynicism. For several years, that fog has been my ambience. Working at an interdisciplinary, university-based center where we apply historical perspective to contemporary dilemmas, I have tried many experiments to clear the air. I have participated in more panels, forums and conversations on the subject than I can count, and I have hosted a lengthy series of public programs called FrackingSENSE. Sometimes distrusted by people who have mobilized to fight hydraulic fracturing projects in proximity to their homes, and sometimes distrusted by people in the oil and gas industry, I have become a resident, in the words of poet A.E. Stallings, of “shaky ground.”

 

In very recent times, the combination of two forms of technology has brought a vast energy resource into reach: Hydraulic fracturing has mobilized a process to release gas and oil from impermeable underground formations, while horizontal drilling has made it possible to drill a well vertically and then branch off horizontally to reach a much greater area of the subsurface for fracturing. This technological convergence has called into question the once-confident prophecies of the looming scarcity of U.S.-produced oil and natural gas.

The boom of activity in the planet’s underworld has brought to the surface not only an abundance of hydrocarbons, but a deep reservoir of buried political and social tension. So closely entwined are the rearrangements of the geological and psychological subsurfaces that there are, indeed, good reasons to see the controversy over hydraulic fracturing as a “proxy debate.”

An honest account of everything we are fighting about when we fight about fracking would require a text of great length, featuring, for instance, an enormous chapter on capitalism, property and profit. But just as worthy of our attention is a surprisingly neglected question:  Which people are fighting with intensity when we fight about fracking, and what lines of division structure their fight? Conventional commentary rests on the notion that the American people are divided into two clearly defined and rigidly opposed cohorts, one in support of hydraulic fracturing (“pro-industry”) and another in opposition to it (“anti-industry”). Just beneath the surface of that notion lie layers of complexity.

Often pushed to the side is the very sizable portion of the citizenry that has not yet made up its mind. This nearly inaudible population likely finds more cheer than gloom in the news that the American nation turns out to have enormous holdings in oil and gas, even as it understands that this unexpected good fortune comes with a crucial challenge in responsible stewardship. These folks do not organize themselves into associations, convene rallies, gather signatures for ballot initiatives, buy advertisements, put out position papers, or hire attorneys to file lawsuits in support of their interests.

Factors of class, race and ethnicity converge in a second concealed layer. Most of the people openly opposed to or in favor of hydraulic fracturing are white and middle- or upper-class. Figuring out the positions of working-class and/or poor people is an exercise amounting to guesswork. Native American people, weighing the benefits and costs of development on reservations, are also under-noticed and at times undercut by a residual paternalism that would not only “protect” them from oil and gas development’s environmental disruption, but also from its potential for economic, social and other opportunities.

Similarly, the discussion of the impacts of development on industrialized urban communities is often drowned out by the much more publicized debates in Colorado’s Front Range suburbs; in a place like Commerce City, for example, oil and gas development is just one more dimension of an already troubled relationship with industrial sites.

Finally, the individuals and groups who have taken firm positions are aligned in a lot more ways than simply lining up as “two sides.”  Both the “pro” and “con” positions are honeycombed with their own internal divisions and fractures, and they share the limitations of a selective historical memory. A closer look at this terrain charts a route to greater realism and — perhaps — a more viable middle ground.

 

University of Colorado historian Patty Limerick, right, with participants of a FrackingSENSE session on natural gas development’s place in the history of Western American extractive industries.
Courtesy Honey Lindburg/Center of The American West

INDUSTRY

While coal, oil and natural gas are all fossil fuels, the people who work in the development of those resources are far from unified and homogenous. Representatives from the natural gas industry are eager and willing to point out the unfortunate emissions produced by the combustion of coal. Coal industry representatives are equally eager to point out that coal remains abundant and matched to the operation of many existing electrical generation plants. 

Hydraulic fracturing, meanwhile, is used to produce both the natural gas and the oil embedded in shale rock. Inevitably teamed up in the phrase “oil and gas” (it is almost as difficult to say “oil” without “gas,” as it is to say “Lewis” without “Clark”), oil does not deliver the significant climate advantage of cleaner-burning natural gas. Public discourse would benefit immediately if the discussion of using-hydraulic-fracturing-to-produce-oil was distinguished from the discussion of using-hydraulic-fracturing-to-produce-natural-gas.

Stakeholders in support of fracking include Caroline Maxwell, shown with her baby, Cayden, at a pro-oil and gas rally in Greeley, Colorado, last summer.
Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune

Rick Roles says he's anti-fracking himself, but his family leases land to the industry in Garfield County.
Julie Dermansky

Companies come in all sizes, from vast multinationals to small family businesses. While there is a lot of room for variation in the choices made by individual company leaders, it is undeniable that large companies have more financial resources to invest in precautions and protections against pollution, as well as in compensations to affected communities. 

Also worth attention is the difference between the operator (the company that is the principal player in a particular development) and a range of subcontractors. While the operator holds primary responsibility for the site, service companies perform the actual work of hydraulic fracturing and production. This helps explain why subcontracting companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger, which see the components of fracturing fluid as their key intellectual property or trade secret, have resisted the public disclosure of these components much more vigorously than exploration and development companies.

Subcontractors also supply the trucking services that bring water to the site for fracturing, and then take it away for disposal or treatment. (Pipelines, of course, provide an alternative to trucks, but that, in turn, brings another subcontractor into the story.) As in any such chain of commissioned services, a clear line of responsibility and accountability becomes increasingly hard to track as more moving parts come into play.

Of all these distinctions, the toughest to address is the difference between good operators and not-so-good operators. As in every profession, variations in human character and judgment can make a big difference in performance. A good player has no obvious mechanism or procedure for asking that his rivals meet his standards of good performance, even though the reputations of all companies will suffer from the careless behavior of one.

 

NOT-INDUSTRY (i.e., groups expressing concern about or direct opposition to hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas development)

Here we are stuck with a wordy, clumsy sub-section title, because the terms “opposition” or “opponents” fail to capture the spectrum of distinct groups that includes:

 • Residents who have learned that their neighborhoods are under consideration for development, and whose concerns center on impacts to their quality of life. These folks never had the slightest desire to live in proximity to the noise, bright lights, bustle and smells of an industrial production site, nor to consider the possibility of  health threats from pollution. Many of them never saw themselves as activists, but have become mobilized by the intrusion.

• Residents who share the concerns of the people in the previous category, but who were primed and ready, for reasons that preceded the arrival of hydraulic fracturing in their neighborhoods, to denounce the concentration of power in corporations and to lament the failure of government to protect citizens.

• People (whether residents or not) who have had a long involvement in environmental causes, acting as advocates for clean air, pure water and wildlife habitat. These folks place natural gas development in a category of troubles (mines, dams, fossil-fuel-dependent transportation, suburban sprawl, etc.) they have been trying to correct or constrain for years. Often, their concerns focus on oil and gas development on the public lands.

• People who move to an area undergoing natural gas development in order to mobilize and channel local discontent, often on behalf of a national campaign to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry and to accelerate the shift to renewable energy.

While these groups may unite from time to time, industry groups often overlook their differences. A drilling opponent, for instance, may be accused of pushing a hidden agenda of halting society’s dependence on fossil fuel use, whether or not that goal ever figured into his or her motivations.

Those living in proximity to drilling also defy homogeneity. “Royalty owners,” people who own both the land on the surface and the mineral resources beneath the surface, view the terrain differently than those who just own the surface. It is not uncommon to find one group of landowners, insisting on their right to the revenue from their subsurface mineral rights, in direct conflict with another group who resents the disruption and disturbance wrought by development from which they will not see a dime.

Both the surface landowners and the owners of the subsurface minerals celebrate the rights of private property, and sometimes their collision can be negotiated in ways that both find acceptable. But more often, split estate leads to clashes under tangled terms that are hard to manage or sometimes even to understand.

Stakeholders against fracking include Julie Boyle whose Weld County home became neighbor to a fracking operation.
Julie Dermansky

Shane Davis, a well-known fracking activist in Colorado, speaks during the Frack-Free Colorado rally in 2012.
Steve Harbula

The “two sides” model becomes a particular burden when we return to the uncomfortable issue of social class. Consider low-income households, where individuals and families struggle to pay their heating bills, facing difficult choices between buying food or medications and keeping a house warm in winter.  For people struggling with household finances, the recent drop in energy prices (produced in part from the expansion of hydraulic fracturing) has reduced life’s burdens, a point often lost in public discussions. 

And then there are the workers. Jobs in natural gas development pay well. This is especially true for people without college degrees who, otherwise, face a dismal set of opportunities in “post-industrial” America.  And yet they also face the highest risk of injury or exposure to toxic substances. Because the workers are often transitory newcomers, interactions between them and long-term residents can be tense, even hostile. The established residents may express an interest in the workers because the close monitoring and study of their health could reveal risks that they themselves might face. But their social distance from the workers is itself an unsettling aspect of the industry’s presence.

During a very cold spell near Mead, Colorado, in November of 2014, workers tried to thaw a high-pressure water pipe at a well site. When the pipe broke, it killed one and injured two others. Newspaper articles simply said that the person who lost his life had been identified as “Matthew Smith, 36.” Had the person killed in this explosion been a nearby resident, or an executive of an oil and gas company, we certainly would have learned a lot more about him. Instead, the dimensions and dynamics of his life remain beneath the surface of our attention. Returning to the “two sides” model, where do we place “Matthew Smith, 36?” 

The broadest paradox in the fracking debate lies in the allocation of costs and benefits. The local communities in proximity to development experience the disturbance with immediacy and intensity. The principal benefits — national security, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, heated homes, generated electricity, and profits to company owners and stockholders — are received in distant locales. This is an arrangement set up to maximize distrust and misunderstanding.

 

A drill rig lies in the greenspace between two neighborhoods, Raspberry Hill (foreground) and Eagle Valley, in Frederick, on Colorado’s Front Range.
Jim Hill/KUNC

PEOPLE OF PARADOX

If digging into the physical and social complexity of the fracking debate is one way to overcome polarization, understanding historical context is another. All the contestants engaged in disputes over hydraulic fracturing rest their weight on the thin veneer of the present, paying only selective and sporadic attention to the history concealed beneath it. History, however, is not choosing sides.

The extraction of natural resources — gold, silver, coal, oil, timber, grass, water, soil nutrients — drove American expansion into the West. It also left behind many messes: abandoned mines leaking acid drainage into streams and open-pit mines evolving into toxic lakes; clear-cut forest lands; eroded soil; ghost towns stranded when busts followed booms. Today, when an energy company puts forward a plan to drill for oil and gas, it is susceptible to characterization as the latest villain in this long history of companies racing to capture resources, make money and depart without cleaning up. Even though oil and gas leaders can accurately point to a revolution in federal, state, and local regulation of their industry, for better or worse they carry an association with the history of extraction in the West, and they may have to embrace even higher standards to overcome its weight.

The residents of Colorado’s Front Range towns and suburbs, meanwhile, move through the present with an awkward historical legacy of their own. A number of these communities originated as coal-mining towns or came into being with an extractive economy. Even Boulder had an active oil field in the early 20th century. More to the point, these towns owe their post-World War II burst of residential expansion to a festival of fossil fuel combustion, which continues apace today. Commuting to and from the city of Denver became more and more viable with highways, abundant gasoline and widespread automobile ownership. And the suburbs have left their own heavy social and ecological footprint: Just a few decades ago, environmentalists were deeply concerned about sprawl, which was driven in part by white flight from urban desegregation. The resulting suburban development created a legacy of traffic congestion, disrupted wildlife habitat and celebratory consumerism.

To view Front Range suburbs before the arrival of rigs and wells as places of pastoral calm, healthful living and environmental responsibility is historically naive. Their residents would do well to remember that just beneath the innocence of their neighborhoods lies an infrastructure that steadily provides them with energy produced in other people’s neighborhoods.

History, in other words, requires us to face up to the cultural and psychological disconnection between energy production and energy consumption. But history does not require us to use the term “hypocrites” to characterize residents who resist fossil fuel production in proximity to their homes. By a long shot, it would be wiser to borrow the wonderful title of a book by historian Michael Kammen, and refer to suburban residents making difficult choices as “people of paradox.” 

Homes in the town of Erie push up against oil and gas development on Colorado’s Front Range.
Evan Anderman
 

THE SEEDS OF A NEW CONVERSATION

Hosting FrackingSENSE events in Boulder and in Greeley, I arrived at each session with hopes that seemed both very promising and appropriately modest. I felt certain that we could reduce the confusion produced by the imprecise and misleading categories of “pro-industry” and “anti-industry,” and that we could sharpen our thinking by paying close attention to presentations by experts and by thoughtful advocates. And as an ardent practitioner of applied history, I wanted to explore the possibility that thinking in larger units of time could clear our minds.

In many ways, my hopes did not betray me. Audience members were attentive, even when they disagreed with a speaker. Asked to limit their expressions of dissent to a new social form, the exciting innovation called “fully licensed respiratory protest,” citizens did not shout to interrupt or silence speakers; instead, they accepted my invitation to sigh in exasperation, gasp with disbelief, and snort with contempt, effectively conveying their feelings without interfering with their neighbors’ right to hear the speakers.

The scene at the end of a FrackingSENSE talk was particularly encouraging: clusters of people pursuing intense and forthright conversations. Assigned to attend the talks and to ask the community members seated near them about their reactions, CU students, as well as the citizens who responded to their questions, were high achievers in the sport called civil discourse.

But my hopes got their greatest reinforcement when I left the lecture hall and went to dinner with the speaker and several purposefully courted guests with a wide variety of viewpoints. By and large, the conversations were congenial, even if they were (as they should have been) tense. But the deeper value of my dining experiment was this: The participants alternated speaking and listening, the best conditions for making at least brief visits to the inner worlds inhabited by opponents, and to separating issues of substance and consequence from the noise of fevered dispute. 

And now I can imagine hundreds of readers putting aside their differences to unite in a great swell of skepticism: “Could Patty Limerick actually think that this enormous conflict could be resolved by taking antagonists out to dinner?” In truth, I would be an ardent supporter of a campaign to mobilize Colorado’s thriving restaurant scene in this cause. Assembling antagonists around a table with an array of good food in front of them delivers this bedrock benefit: Everyone must, episodically, fall silent in order to chew.

There’s no shortage of evidence that we are still trapped in a hopeless stalemate on the future of hydraulic fracturing. Even as I write this, industry and non-industry groups are gearing up for fights at the ballot box and in the courts. And yet the downturn in oil and gas prices gives us a chance to think beneath the surface of our locked and frozen antagonism.

I have listened as a veteran of the oil and gas business declared that his industry should pay close attention to the lessons from the history of extractive industries, especially on the wisdom of exercising foresight and precaution in anticipation of environmental legacies. And I have confronted the fatigue and frustration of people deeply concerned about the well-being of their home communities, who must shoehorn their activism into schedules already packed with the obligations of work and family. I believe that empathy for their circumstances, especially with their concerns for the safety of their children, is within the emotional reach of any leader in the oil and gas industry, and meaningful actions could result from that willingness to venture outside the circles of the likeminded and to reckon with the experiences of people who have been unsettled — in the many meanings of that word — by oil and gas development.

The women and men who served on the recent Colorado Governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force, tasked with finding a politically viable middle ground, had a tough job that no one can envy. And yet, true to my profession, I cannot surrender the thought that their labors would have proven more fruitful if they could have opened their meetings with this secular invocation:  We cannot plan for our future until we face up to our history and directly acknowledge the complexity of our own moment in time. And if that observation seems too prosaic and pedestrian, then here are two more eloquently phrased statements to get conversations off to a promising start: 

There is no distinction, for all have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God.

—Romans 3:23

Slowly you restore
The fractured world and start
To re-create the afternoon before
It fell apart.

—A.E. Stallings, “Jigsaw Puzzle”

 

Patricia Limerick was recently named Colorado State Historian. This essay is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation, though its findings and conclusions are those of the author alone. A version of this essay appears in a new book, Fracture: Essays, Poems and Stories on Fracking in America, published in 2016 by the Center of the American West.