‘De-escalating’ war of words in Colo. still an elusive goal for top industry group
E&E News | Ellen M. Gilmer
June 10, 2013
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You'd think she was talking about nuclear warfare.
Tucked in a Washington, D.C., steakhouse in the shadow of the Capitol dome, Tisha Schuller peppers a conversation with words like "de-escalation," "polarization" and "high-octane."
Her tone is familiar in the clashes over energy development in Colorado, pitting the U.S. oil and gas industry against communities that don't trust it. As president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, Schuller has seen tensions boil over, making it hard for drillers, communities and conservationists to find common ground.
"If we're talking about 'Ban fracking' or 'Drill, baby, drill,' they're both extremes," Schuller told EnergyWire last month. "So my focus for the next couple of years is de-escalating the conversation, spending all our time on this, doing the hard work in the middle."
Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. Photo courtesy of Colorado Oil & Gas Association.
That was also her goal when she started at the industry group in 2009.
Since then, Colorado has started to look like other booming oil and gas-producing states, with oil and gas companies moving toward urban areas. For decades, Coloradans have navigated oil booms and busts in the western half of the state, and they associated energy development with bobbing pumpjacks spread out across open spaces. In recent years, however, encroachment in the Front Range around Denver has pulled quiet communities into disputes with powerful drilling interests.
A tumultuous year
Things can't get much worse than in 2012. Liberal enclaves in a handful of Colorado cities pushed to shut out the industry altogether, public hearings turned to emotional pressure cookers, and the Colorado Oil & Gas Association was at the center of it all.
After the city of Longmont, about 40 miles north of Denver, moved to ban hydraulic fracturing -- the industrial process of blasting chemical-laced water and sand underground to crack shale and release gas -- the association joined other industry players in an expensive campaign to protect their drilling interests. The ban passed anyway, and COGA sued the city.
That was in December, the same month commissioners in Boulder County (where Longmont is located) had to revise security measures after a representative from Encana Oil and Gas Inc. was harassed by anti-drilling activists during a public hearing.
Schuller has also been targeted. Extreme anti-drilling activists posted Schuller's home address online, along with information about her family, encouraging residents to "hold them accountable for their crimes."
Schuller is married, with two children, but she doesn't dwell on the threats. She said the mess last year was disheartening but that it helped her better understand the nature of oil and gas critics: There are some who will always oppose fossil fuel development, she said, and there are others who genuinely fear drilling.
With that realization, Schuller said, the industry needs a new approach to its conversation with critics. It should not be, "How can I convince you that oil and gas is OK?" Rather, she suggested, "OK, your concerns are legitimate. What do we need to do to address them?"
"How do we change this from a reactive, aggressive, defensive conversation?" she asked.
It was with that question that Schuller headed to Washington, D.C., last month with the Western Energy Alliance. She met with Colorado's congressional delegation to recruit partners in her mission of "bringing the conversation to the middle."
Making an effort
But not everyone is buying it.
If the Colorado Oil & Gas Association meant for 2013 to pass more peacefully than 2012, the "midyear returns are not as favorable as we would have hoped for," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado.
Maysmith said COGA has fought tightened regulations "vociferously" and has done plenty on its own to agitate the drilling debate. Besides the controversy over municipal fracking bans, the industry group was also deeply involved in negotiations of new state regulations, a process that left few stakeholders satisfied.
"There was opportunity for agreement and compromise, and they chose not to seize that opportunity," Maysmith said.
The rules, proposed in 2012 and finalized early this year, addressed groundwater monitoring and setbacks, the distance of oil and gas operations from homes and other places. COGA partnered with oil and gas companies that pushed for an alternative setback proposal that would provide more flexibility for drillers, but a stricter measure ultimately passed.
The association has also taken heat for its suit against Longmont. In March, a coalition of environmental groups filed to intervene in the case, calling COGA's suit an "attack" on community rights.
"Rather than sue communities acting to protect their public health, industry and the state should be addressing legitimate community concerns by putting the public's health before industry profits," said Bruce Baizel of Earthworks, part of the coalition.
The association also got into trouble when it opposed proposed fracking limits in Fort Collins earlier this year. The group submitted a petition to the City Council that included names of businesses that had not signed it, a controversy that prompted COGA to pull the petition. Local police are investigating the matter.
Still, environmentalists in Colorado acknowledge that COGA has tried to be more collaborative. The association meets with conservation groups monthly and hired a full-time staffer to work with communities. It's also working to form partnerships with national groups like the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental organizaton with a history of crafting compromises with industries.
"The issue isn't that somebody doesn't know how to pick up the phone," Maysmith said. "We have open channels of dialogue."
Is dialogue enough?
With Schuller's background, the dialogue should come naturally. The COGA leader joined the association after a career in environmental consulting for oil and gas projects and a position on the board of a Colorado environmental organization.
She served for three years on the board of the Center for Native Ecosystems, a Colorado-based conservation group focused on protecting biodiversity. On the finance committee, Schuller was responsible for handling budget issues for the nonprofit.
"Tisha clearly has a strong stewardship ethic and a conservationist mindset," said Josh Pollock, who was conservation director for the group while Schuller was on the board.
She stepped down to take the position at COGA in December 2009 and said she planned to change the tone of the fossil fuel debate in Colorado.
"I was really passionate that if someone spoke out for the industry in sort of a reasonable way that wasn't so aggressive and defensive, that people would understand," she said.
The industry group's mission of keeping an open dialogue with critics will be on full display later this summer when the group hosts its annual energy conference. Straying from the standard lineup of industry people, Schuller has invited a couple of high-profile environmental leaders.
The Nature Conservancy's Peter Kareiva, a scientist known for challenging other environmentalists to arm their views with data, will talk about his optimistic views on nature's resiliency. And Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, will have a moderated discussion with Martin Durbin, the new head of America's Natural Gas Alliance.
"If we're having these conversations, they're not easy," Schuller said. "They're still messy and challenging, and they take a long time. Those are the right conversations to be having."
Pollock, now senior program adviser for Rocky Mountain Wild, a group that formed when the Center for Native Ecosystems merged with Colorado Wild in 2011, said Schuller has succeeded in setting "more direction" for the industry as head of COGA.
"The challenge is about balancing the need for growth on the side of the industry with those conservation values," Pollock said, "and I think those things are very often not in direct conflict."
Still, Conservation Colorado wants COGA's attempt at balance to go a step further.
"[The conversation] ultimately has to translate into positions that are strongly protective of the spectacular environment in Colorado. We haven't seen enough of that," Maysmith said. "The challenge is, when push comes to shove, is COGA going to step forward?"