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A Call For Outreach At Rocky Mountain Energy Summit

Jim Hill

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. Much of the discussion this year at the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit in Denver, which brings together energy leaders from across the country, was focused on public anxiety over fracking.

“There are legitimate concerns people have,” said Marty Durbin, President of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a Washington D.C. 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.”

Peter Kareiva 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 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.”

It’s a pivotal time according to the oil and gas industry, especially in places such as Colorado.

Longmont voters have already banned the practice of fracking.

Residents in several communities along the Front Range are poised to vote on five-year fracking moratoriums this fall. In Fort Collins signatures have been submitted to put a fracking moratorium on the ballot.

Kelly Giddens, with the group Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins 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.

“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 timeout,” said Giddens.

Representative Matt Jones (D- Longmont) agrees with Giddens’ disappointment with state lawmakers. 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,” said Jones. “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.”

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 also 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,” said King. “The substance of the issues is coming more to the front.”

King continues to say 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,” said Navin. “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.”

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.

While it's not exactly a new coalition, Polis has since withdrawn the lawsuit and did show up at the conference.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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