Panelists discuss energy development during a Buechner Breakfast at CU Denver

While record amounts of oil and gas flow, Colorado is wrestling with the boom’s scale and potential health consequences. A panel at CU Denver discussed energy policy and pushed for “more light and less heat” in the polarizing debate.

The Buechner Breakfast First Friday featured “Energy Development, Hydraulic Fracturing and the Environment: Issues of Policy and Politics in Colorado.” The topic drew a crowd of more than 100 to the Terrace Room on May 3.

Since 2009, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has been used in 90 percent of the 13,000 new and adjusted oil and gas wells in Colorado. The state now has about 50,000 operating wells, accounting for thousands of jobs. But just as the industry has bolstered the economy, it has spurred controversy about drills rising next to schools and residential areas.

Sitting on the panel were Tisha Conoly Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association; Elise Jones, Boulder County Commissioner; Ginny Brannon, assistant director for water and energy, Colorado Department of Natural Resources; Melinda Quiat, CEO of the Quiat Companies; and Geoff Wilson, general counsel, Colorado Municipal League. The discussion was co-moderated by Tanya Heikkila and Chris Weible, associate professors in the School of Public Affairs and faculty research affiliates in the Buechner Institute for Governance.

Just as some Colorado communities have embraced the boom — such as Greeley and some Western Slope towns — Front Range cities including Longmont and Boulder have taken anti-fracking stances.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission recently passed rules that regulate the industry. Brannon said the regulations are among the strongest in the country, but she acknowledged that the industry needs to do a better job of communicating with residents. “We need to open the lines of communication …. from the town hall to the kitchen table, we need more of it.”

Jones said that because the boom is unprecedented and the long-term public health effects are unclear, local governments need more tools and protections to safeguard the public “who are bombarding us with emails on concerns” ranging from groundwater and air safety to property value impacts.

She said that Colorado should be a leader in regulating the oil and gas industry. “But the question is are our rules strong enough, and the answer is clearly no.” She noted that the state has 50,000 wells and only 16 inspectors, meaning wells are visited once every 3 1/2 years. “We are drilling near large population centers in a way we have not done before … We need to proceed with caution.”

Quiat, whose company has drilling partners in several Western states, noted that methods to recycle fracking fluid and well vapors are part of a wave of innovations that will improve the industry. She pointed out that schools benefit from energy operators’ tax payments.

Addressing a question about ways to improve energy policy, Wilson said communities should consider using contract power like memorandums of understanding and other agreements to work with operators. “There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on that serves the public interest in nontraditional ways and gets the job done without us having to spend a lot of money on lawyers,” he said.

Schuller said there should be more measured discussion on policy and less laundry list attempts to push through legislation. “In the last four weeks we’ve had 10 anti-oil and gas bills … Those are sound bites,” she said. “In the interface between communities and energy development, sound bites do not lead to good policy. Each of these questions is a yearlong working group of citizens and industry and regulators (meeting). That’s how we’re going to get a good answer.”

An audience member asked the panelists what their visions of the energy future look like.

Schuller said she prefers an “agnostic” vision, one that’s not aligned with the “drill baby drill” or “ban fracking” extremes of the debate. “If we can produce energy in a way that’s sustainable and builds our economy and takes care of the least among us by making sure they have access to affordable energy, then I think Colorado has all of these extraordinary resources,” she said. “Once we break down this ‘us vs. them’ (mindset) we can have wind and solar and oil and gas and coal. We can do it together here in Colorado and have the finest solutions imaginable.”

Jones said that climate change necessitates development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. “The long-term health of our planet depends on us transitioning to a completely free energy future,” she said. “While natural gas burns cleaner than coal it’s still much dirtier than renewables. It’s a finite resource, and eventually we need to not be dependent on that.”

The Buechner Breakfast series is coordinated by the Buechner Institute for Governance, which is part of the School of Public Affairs. The series will take the summer off and return in the fall.

(Photo: From left, panelists Tisha Conoly Schuller, Elise Jones, Ginny Brannon, Melinda Quiat and Geoff Wilson (not pictured) debate energy development and hydraulic fracturing at the final Buechner Breakfast of the 2012-13 academic year at CU Denver.)

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