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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Colorado's Oil And Gas Industry Works To Add Some Sheen To Their Image

Dan Boyce
Inside Energy
Anadarko's STIM Center consolidates the fracking operations of four well pads into one.

Many Colorado communities are still leery about the oil and gas drilling they see right outside their doors. In response, oil companies are working hard to polish their public image, both through messaging and improving their drilling techniques.

It is not as if public relations are anything new for oil and gas. Companies in energy states around the country have invested in the communities where they operate for decades. It is all part of their "social license to operate."

Take one of Colorado's biggest operators, Encana, as an example. The company spends more than $1 million in the state every year on projects ranging from high school football stadium scoreboards to Front Range flood relief.

In an email released to Inside Energy, Encana outlined their "community investment" spending just in Weld County, the heart of the state's oil and gas boom:

  • 2007 - $300,575
  • 2008 - $404,000
  • 2009 - $266,250
  • 2010 - $229,315
  • 2011 - $365,000
  • 2012 - $387,000
  • 2013 - $783,000
  • 2014 - $545,000 (budgeted)

In the wake of drilling bans and the attention around two pulled ballot measures, Colorado State University Professor Charles Davis said the industry has been stepping up its public relations efforts.

"They've ramped things up because public concern has also increased," he said.

Public Education

Part of that ramping up on the industry side is a public education effort significantly more aggressive than a few company-sponsored scoreboards.

For example, two industry giants, Noble and Anadarko, founded a nonprofit group called Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development after drilling bans and the anti-fracking crowd started gaining momentum. The organization pays for TV, radio and print advertising which seeks to explain not only the economic benefits of oil and gas drilling in the state, but to lay out the industry's view that hydraulic fracturing is safe and well-regulated.

"We really needed to do this a long time ago," said CRED Communications Director Jon Haubert, "but better late than never."

CRED airs these educational ads while its sister group, Protect Colorado, focuses more overtly on political ads.

Even though the fracking initiatives were pulled from the ballot, CRED and Protect Colorado are not shutting their doors. Both groups expect to remain funded and to continue their public relation efforts for the foreseeable future.

"All of these types of discussions are gonna be here tomorrow, the day after, next year and for many more years," Haubert said.

New Techniques

On the other side of the battle for hearts and minds, companies are innovating ways to lessen their visible impact on the ground.

Anadarko has been using what it calls its STIM Center to consolidate and centralize its visible impact. STIM is short for stimulation, a gentler word for fracking.

At the STIM site, red semis are backed in around gray towers, called sand castles. The sand mixes with water pumped in from a nearby source and small amounts of chemicals. This slurry is then injected into the ground at high pressure, cracking open shale formations and allowing oil and gas to flow.

Engineering adviser Rebecca Johnson said companies normally need to set up this gear at each individual pad of four or so wells. But, the STIM center uses "remote fracking" to consolidate that impact.

"So we're laying a line from this site over to another site that may be a mile away," Johnson said.

By pumping the fracking fluid through temporary pipelines, the STIM site can frack 20 different wells instead of four. The center dramatically reduces the size of well sites and cuts the amount of truck traffic needed to serve the wells. Anadarko said it is the first time such technology has been implemented specifically for the purpose of lowering public impact.

The company now hopes the public will take notice.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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