Crossing the line proves difficult when dealing with energy issues

“The West is very rich in resources. The West is very rich in landscape beauty. As a result, the West is rich in contention. It’s not easy being rich.”  — “What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy.”

Anyone else think we seem hell-bent in proving just how difficult it is to be awash in all kinds of energy resources? It is obviously not easy being rich, as the publication by the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado in Boulder pointed out back in 2003.

Ask Chevron, the Bureau of Land Management or Gov. John Hickenlooper. Check with anyone you know up in the North Fork Valley. Or local government officials, especially those in heavily populated areas along the Front Range now hearing from constituents newly worried about things that have raised eyebrows in more rural parts of Colorado for many years.

Chevron recently announced it is pulling the plug on its oil shale research and development effort just as the BLM is gearing up for still another go-round in the public arena next week over oil shale regulations and is pondering whether to issue a second round of R&D leases.

Hickenlooper is feeling heat from environmentalists over appearing in ads for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and is also convening another one of those “blue ribbon” efforts to find common ground between the state’s oversight of leasing and downhole drilling practices and the authority of local governments to regulate land use on the surface.

Offers of free wine, fruit and organic veggies probably wouldn’t draw the types of crowds that gather to discuss potential drilling around Paonia and Hotchkiss. You know it isn’t just those damned hippies raising hell when it’s retired Mesa County Judge Bill Ela worrying out loud about potential impacts to his family’s farm.

Sometimes, this feels a lot like the old saying about most battles being fought by the committed few on opposing sides who are firing their shots over the heads of those in the middle still wondering what the heck is going on and what they ought to do about it.

And it also seems that the fights over energy development have become the new version of the water wars that have divided East Slope and West Slope, urban and rural areas, conservationists and developers, for eons.

More than a decade ago, when I was doing some contract work for Shell in the early stages of its oil shale project in Rio Blanco County, I asked the executive I worked with to explain what an oil company was doing spending money not only on oil shale but also on wind farms, biomass and things like that. 

First, Rich Hansen gently chastised me for using the term “oil company.” Shell was an “energy company,” I was informed, and it didn’t want to end up “in the buggy whip business” by continuing to rely solely on conventional resources.

I’ve thought a lot about Rich’s buggy whip analogy lately, both in the context of ongoing controversies over conventional resources and the push for renewable energy such as wind and solar power and alternative fuels. In all those forms, energy development seems to be at the crossroads of relying on what’s been proven to be successful and pushing forward into uncharted territory.

It’s occurred to me that Henry Ford might have focused on breeding faster and stronger horses rather than tinkering with his Tin Lizzie. The Wright brothers might have attempted to refine the workings of the bicycles they repaired instead of building the glorified kite that flew at Kitty Hawk. But Henry and Orville and Wilbur thought outside the box and started their separate revolutions in transportation.

There might be a message there for those who persist in reflexively defending old ways of doing things until forced by regulators or public opinion to change. And also for some on the other side who might do a better job of balancing the practical with the theoretic in their haste to foment change.

All of those folks do a pretty good job of pushing their envelopes on both sides of the line between old and new. I wonder what might happen if they spent an equal amount of “energy” figuring out how to work across that line.


Jim Spehar often finds himself crossing various lines in his professional work on energy and public lands issues. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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