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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.

Wyoming Looks To Sidestep Urban Energy Development Tensions

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Stephanie Joyce
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Wyoming Public Media
Retired Air Force colonel, Barry Burns is concerned that drilling could soon move close to his Cheyenne, Wyo. home.

So far, Wyoming has largely managed to avoid the tensions over oil and gas development that have cropped up in other states. It's not hard to imagine that it's just a matter of time though, as companies have filed for hundreds of drilling in the vicinity of the state's largest city, Cheyenne.

Unlike the common refrain elsewhere, it's exceedingly rare for anyone in Wyoming to call for a ban on drilling or even protest the status quo. Despite that, there are signs that tensions are rising.

Recently Commissioner Tom Fitzsimmons surprised the room at an Oil and Gas Commission hearing with a rare public rebuke of an oil and gas company. He told executives from Cirque Resources that he had been speaking to landowners in Laramie County and the company "didn't get great grades."

In an interview afterward, Fitzsimmons said that shot across the bow was not just directed at Cirque, but at all companies operating in Wyoming.

"There is opportunity to improve upon the situation and take out the tension, at least where it's at right now," he said, adding that there's a common misconception that because Wyoming has had so much oil and gas development in the past, companies don't need to engage communities. "In the Big Horn Basin, we've had production for over 100 years. It doesn't mean that because it's been there that long, that you don't go and share with the community what your plans are."

Although Fitzsimmons didn't use the term, he was hinting at the concept of social license, the idea that having government permits in hand isn't enough – companies need to have community buy-in as well.

"We need companies to not be uncomfortable with disagreement," Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.

Disagreements with people like Barry Bruns.

"We should not have to give up our equity, our way of life, our health and well-being to have a particular well site become more profitable to the oil company," said Bruns, a retired Air Force colonel.

He and his wife live in a subdivision just north of Cheyenne. From their living room, the closest drilling rig is barely a black speck on the horizon, but a company has already done preliminary exploration around his house and Bruns is sure that soon enough, those rigs will be much closer. By the time they are he'd like to see more oil and gas companies thinking about social license, whether by choice, or because the state makes them.

"We need to find a statesman-like person or group of people, whether it's in government or outside of government, who can bring all the parties together and say 'we're going to stop this confrontational model,'" he said.

"We should not have to give up our equity, our way of life, our health and well-being to have a particular well site become more profitable to the oil company."

The Oil and Gas Commission took a stab at that in November 2014 when it drafted a proposal that would require companies to notify anyone who lives within a 1000 feet of a proposed well site of their plans. As it's written though, notification doesn't have to happen until 30 days before drilling starts.

"I guarantee you if they're going to drill a well on a pad 30 days from now, all of their plans are made," Bruns said, pointing out that it doesn't leave a lot of time for constructive dialogue.

The rule is out for comment and could be changed before it is finalized. Bruns said as is, it leaves the door open for growing conflict, something he thinks everyone would be better off without. But he's hopeful that Wyoming can come up with a different model and a different outcome than elsewhere in the country.

"It would make Wyoming a leader in oil and gas development," he said. "This would be the place to develop it."

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

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