The oil and gas industry says it’s trying to focus on new ways to reach out to an increasingly skeptical public. Community concern is rising as hydraulic fracturing moves into more and more populated areas of the Front Range. At the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit in Denver, which brings together energy leaders from across the country, much of the discussion this year focused on public anxiety over fracking.
“ There are legitimate concerns people have,” said Marty Durbin, President of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a Washington DC based lobbying group. “Have some empathy. They’re not bad people, nor are we obviously. But I think more broadly as an industry we’ve got to be clear. This is no longer a conversation about will we or won’t we be producing this resource. We are.”
The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist told the crowd to be humble and go beyond the numbers.
“It is clear the public is not technical,” said Peter Kareiva. "Fine. But don’t be arrogant. You’ve got to approach it with a patience, and not start it with if only you understood.”
The oil and gas industry says it’s a pivotal time – especially in places such as Colorado. Residents in several communities along the Front Range are poised to vote on five-year fracking moratoriums this fall. Longmont voters have already banned the practice.
“Whether you’re drilling for oil or gas, you’re using toxic carcinogenic materials, so introducing that in neighborhoods where children are playing, eating and breathing that seems problematic to people. So it seems to make sense, to say hey let’s take a time out,” said Kelly Giddens, with the group Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins.
She also wants more studies on how fracking impacts public health, the environment and property values and is disappointed state lawmakers didn’t pass stricter rules this year. Representative Matt Jones (D- Longmont) agrees. He wants to see legislation to increase fines and the number of well inspections. The two issues were brought up during the session but failed.
“I think we could’ve been a lot better,” Jones said. “It was very frustrating. All we’re asking is for public health to be a bigger priority than people making profits from the oil and gas industry and we didn’t seem to be able to get very far.”
But state officials and Governor John Hickenlooper say Colorado already has some of the strictest rules and environmental standards in the country. Colorado Department of Natural Resources executive director Mike King says there’s an understandable fear when an unfamiliar industrial process comes near urban communities. But he thinks the debate is starting to shift.
“The sense I get that we’re having a more reasonable discussion about some of the oil and gas impacts. The substance of the issues is coming more to the front.”
He says companies shouldn’t dismiss their critics, and should try to go above and beyond what’s required by law.
“This is not a public relations process,” said King. “This is a family outreach process. They need to make people understand they are members of the community, they are vested in the community and care about air quality for their children and everyone else’s children. And once that happens I think the relationship between the industry and these communities will change."
The energy sector is rapidly evolving according to industry experts. Jeff Navin was the Chief of Staff to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu. He spoke at the summit and worries there’s too much focus on regulation and turf wars.
“It seems to be this big fight between renewable energy and fossil fuels. The future of energy is going to be very different than that. The pie is going to grow there’s going to be lots of room for new entrants and new players. The old assumptions are just going to be wrong. The old coalitions are going to fall apart and new coalitions will form,” said Navin.
And in a nod to reaching out, oil and gas attendees publicly invited Democratic 2nd district congressman Jared Polis to the conference. Polis recently tangled with the industry after suing to stop a drill rig from operating near his vacation home. And while it's not exactly a new coalition, Polis has since withdrawn the lawsuit and did show up at the conference.