In a polarized political environment, two CU Denver researchers are working to help mitigate conflicts around one of Colorado’s most contentious issues – oil and gas development. They recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that allows them to build on five years of research collaboration.

School of Public Affairs Professors Christopher Weible and Tanya Heikkila are leading researchers into energy development at the state level, comparing Colorado’s conflicts over fracking and other issues with those in other states and countries. With the new project, they’ll refine previous observations by delving into individual policy issues across 15 states.

SPA Professor Christopher Weible
SPA Professor Christopher Weible

“We’re trying to diagnose: What are the characteristics of those conflicts? How does the design of policy influence the type of conflict that we see? How do the different actors that get involved shape those conflicts?” says Heikkila.

Diagnosing conflict

By understanding the sources, characteristics and outcomes of conflict, and by comparing decisions which don’t result in conflict with those that do, Heikkila and Weible hope to help people better deal with conflict in the future. This might include various actors involved in shaping conflicts, characteristics of different states and countries, or different approaches to issues.

“When you think of a conflict, a lot of people don’t even know what that looks like, so it just gives you a depiction of, specifically, ‘these are the general contours,’” says Weible. “It helps people understand it, navigate it, maybe even mitigate it, or just deal with it.”

In the past, they have studied and compared conflicts at the state level in Colorado, Texas, New York, Argentina, India and China. The latest NSF grant will help to build on these foundations, while refining their observations into more concrete and perhaps actionable insights. They note that a large percent of policy gets made without any conflict whatsoever, so this research will also help them understand more specifically what separates conflict-intense policymaking with that which involves no conflict.

SPA Professor Tanya Heikkila
SPA Professor Tanya Heikkila

Heikkila and Weible do a lot of work with a group of doctoral students, which is why they have also created the Workshop on Policy Process Research, a research center that helps organize and disseminate their and their students’ research while bringing in visiting scholars.

Practical implications

Heikkila and Weible have always sought practical applications for their work, and that will continue in their current research. They’ve published articles in the Denver Post and shared their work with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Aspen Institute and British Embassy.

“Part of the underlying assumption is that with a lot of the problems we’re facing, a lot of the political issues, we’re not in a position to tell people exactly how to deal with these issues,” Weible says. “But we can shine a light on ‘what do the politics look like?’ and maybe inform them of the type of decisions they might make.”

Ultimately, their research may help people better navigate complex and highly political issues with minimal conflict. While some of their insights may be uniquely useful in understanding fracking conflicts, others may have a more general applicability. Both researchers are involved in other projects, too — Heikkila in water conflicts and Weible in organic agriculture and global warming conflict. All of their research involves conflict and cooperation issues, though.

“The fracking and oil and gas issues have been pretty high profile over the last five years,” says Heikkila. “But, is this unique? Or is it just extreme? Being able to diagnose it first is a way to reflect and say whether it’s unusual.”

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