Messages and tactics unchanged, 
even though energy battles evolve

One particular battle may be over by now. The war will continue.

No, we’re not talking about the various ongoing elements of the self-imposed “fiscal cliff” crisis. Let’s consider, instead, the fight in Denver this week over revisions to rules for drilling activity being considered by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Hearings before the commission on a range of issues began Monday and will continue this week.

It’s telling, but perhaps not surprising, that the first skirmish was not about proposed changes, but concerned industry attempts to control who would be allowed to participate and to impose new rules concerning testimony.

It’s no surprise that the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Colorado Petroleum Association wanted testimony left to the “experts.” Those whose opinions were deemed undesirable included environmental groups, affected landowners and their witnesses, but also former Garfield County Commissioner and former Oil and Gas Commission member Tresi Houpt, as well as Judy Jordan, former oil and gas liaison for Garfield County. 

In other words, anyone with an opinion that might not be shared by industry.

I hope the commission has by now rejected those attempts and moved on to the substance of the issues, such as proposals to increase well setbacks from buildings and the nature and extent of water monitoring near drilling and production sites.

Several things make this latest go-round before the commission interesting.

There’s the irony of industry now fighting to defend rules and regulations it once opposed and threatened to overturn in court, which it now accepts when faced with potentially tighter standards. There’s the inconsistency of supporting overarching state-level regulation while concurrently arguing against “one size fits all” national alternatives for mitigating wildlife concerns that are being proposed by the BLM. 

And, of course, there is the ongoing portrayal of anyone who thinks energy exploration and production can and ought to be done in a manner that protects people and the environment while still providing jobs and profits as an ill-informed opponent wanting to stop all energy development rather than citizens desiring balance.

This is not a new battle, just one that’s taken on an urgency now that rigs are popping up near Front Range homes as well as in more remote, outlying parts of Colorado. There are several reasons for that.

One is that there’s more reliance on groundwater on the other side of the mountains, both for domestic and irrigation use. And it’s one thing to see the lights of a drill rig on a ridge above I-70 while driving past Parachute or Rulison, but quite another to have those lights, trucks and accompanying 24-hour-a-day noise and industrial activity the equivalent of just a few doors down the street in your northern Colorado subdivision.

Even the most restrictive of the proposed new setback requirements would potentially allow intense commercial activity in the drilling phase a block or so away from schools and hospitals.

Also in play is increasing grumpiness along the populous Front Range on the part of citizens. They are demanding their local governments enact drilling moratoriums or otherwise test the separation of powers that prescribes state control over downhole activity while also allowing limited but important regulation of some surface impacts by municipal and county governments. 

All of which makes even more interesting the Sunday Daily Sentinel op-ed piece by guest columnist David Ludlam, executive director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. In his column, Ludlam advised environmentalists to adopt new tactics more accepting of the energy industry, selectively using quotes from environmental sources to bolster his arguments.

Having spent the past 15 years or so as a consultant to major energy industry players, local governments and some elements of the environmental community, I agree with some of his points. I could even offer a few better quotes about an aging sameness in environmental campaign tactics that fails to acknowledge changes in the public and political landscapes.

But it’s very easy to make the argument that the industry also often acts reflexively, using outdated strategies. And it takes a fair amount of the industry’s usual arrogance to offer advice to others while, at the same time, attempting to shut them out of a public process designed to resolve issues of importance to all concerned.

Something about pots and kettles and the color black comes to mind.

Jim Spehar often wonders why all sides ignore the obvious lessons from contemporary energy politics. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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