Understanding policy conflicts with oil and gas

Sara Barwinski (at left), former member of Gov. Hickenlooper’s oil-and-gas task force, spoke to concerned residents during a rally outside of the Boulder County Courthouse on March 14. [Photo courtesy: Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera]

Conflict is a fact of life for those of us living with oil and gas development. Though we don’t necessarily seek it out, conflict manages to find its way into our lives regardless.

The conflicts are many and varied but the predominant conflicts are between:

  • Citizens opposed to oil & gas development vs citizens in favor;
  • Citizens vs operators over well pad locations, truck traffic, odors, noise, dust, spills, and other activities that intrude on their lives;
  • Environmental groups vs the industry over impacts to wildlife, air, and water from drilling on public lands;
  • Environmental groups vs governments over public policy;
  • Industry and government over regulations and enforcement;
  • Citizens and government over public policy, regulations, and enforcement.

Of all the conflicts that last one is has hit a crescendo in Colorado, and is certainly the most difficult to resolve. In a perfect world there would be no conflict between citizens and their government. Most people have an expectation that governments — be they local, state or federal — will do whatever is necessary to protect public health and safety. In many situations, those governments fulfill that duty to the degree they are able through zoning laws, regulations, and enforcement. However when it comes to oil & gas development the growing public perception is that governments at all levels have failed and are failing in their responsibilities to the people they serve.

A closer look at the issues involved between the people and their government focus on policy conflicts. As oil & gas development moves closer to and within residential neighborhoods and communities, conflicts over public policy are growing more intense. Residents faced with drilling proposals in their communities are understandably upset when they learn that local zoning laws don’t apply to oil & gas development due to the sovereignty of mineral rights. They demand regulations from their local and state governments to protect their health, safety, and property rights.

Those residents already coping with oil & gas development near their homes soon discover that the existing regulations are too often not enforced leaving them with the unwelcome task of policing the activities of the local operators to protect their health, safety, and property rights. Inevitably residents who are living with oil & gas development feel abandoned and come to the conclusion that their government has failed them.

There is no more polarizing industry on the planet than energy extraction. The invasion of oil & gas development into Colorado communities has caused an ever-increasing groundswell of opposition across the state, the likes of which we have never before witnessed.

For that reason, UC Denver professors Tanya Heikkila and Chris Weible have been studying the politics and policy surrounding oil and gas development since 2012. Their research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the University of Colorado Denver. The stated purpose of their research is “to understand the sources, characteristics, and effects of the conflict and to inform citizens, stakeholders, and decision-makers on how to better navigate and possibly mitigate conflict intensity.”

Heikkila’s and Weible’s research employs a new approach called the Policy Conflict Framework (PCF) which was developed as a tool for understanding conflicts over public policy issues. The purpose of PCF is to distinguish between cognitive and behavioral characteristics.

Cognitive characteristics of policy conflicts include:

  • Divergence in policy positions among two or more entities and/or groups;
  • Perceived threats from opponents’ policy position;
  • Unwillingness to compromise.

Behavioral characteristics such as public meetings, protests, networking, lobbying, and other actions, are the result of those policy conflicts.

Two recent publications explain the Policy Conflict Framework. The first publication introduces the approach: An overview of the Policy Conflict Framework.

The second publication addresses PCF as it applies to oil & gas conflicts: Unpacking the intensity of policy conflict: a study of Colorado’s oil and gas subsystem

The purpose of applying PCF is not for conflict resolution but to understand the nature of the policy conflicts and how they are connected to cognitive and behavioral characteristics.

For Heikkila and Weible, their research aims to assist everyone involved in the process with finding ways to incorporate broader perspectives, including short and long-term plus advantaged and disadvantaged, toward the goal of a more open and transparent political decision-making process based on fairness.

The research team is collecting data by means of surveys in Colorado, New York, and Texas.

The first survey conducted in Colorado in 2013, revealed substantial disagreements about the severity of problems associated with oil & gas development (e.g. water & air pollution, water consumption, and environmental destruction), and the stringency and/or effectiveness of regulations. More significantly the survey identified that public distrust of hydraulic fracturing and of the oil and gas industry is a severe problem that is not being resolved through the current state regulations.

A Summary Report of Perceptions of the Politics and Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in Colorado

A second survey was conducted in 2015 and researchers are currently in the midst of a third survey. In the interest of full disclosure I was interviewed this week, and received permission from Heikkila to introduce their project on this blog. Though there are specific questions asked by the interviewer, within the framework of the questions there is room to expand on the issues.

For my part I emphasized two issues neither of which is more important than the other, but rather they are issues I see as causing an escalation of tensions:

  • Incidents like the Parachute Creek spill, as well as other spills and accidents, and the invasion of oil & gas development into residential neighborhoods and communities has cultivated a deep distrust among citizens with all levels of government and a lack of faith in the rulemaking process. We are left with the feeling that government has failed to protect the people they serve.
  • The best that citizens and their local government can do is to place conditions of approval (COAs) on permit applications and hope those conditions will be honored. But there is little or no enforcement of COAs so the burden ultimately falls on citizens to act as watchdogs in order to ensure that operators live up to their commitments.

In 2016, the researchers surveyed people actively involved in oil and gas development at the national level (including federal lands) in the United States. The 133 respondents represented public, private, and non-profit organizations.

The survey acknowledges the following:

  • General agreement that oil and gas development poses both benefits and risks;
  • Lack of consensus on the preferred level for regulating many of the risks;
  • Respondents are open to changing their opinion about fracking if sound scientific evidence clarifies whether or not it is safe for the public and environment;
  • Widespread recognition of the high level of political contentiousness of the issues;
  • Awareness of active mobilization particularly at a national level to affect the politics and policy outcomes;
  • Concern about lack of leaders to negotiate policy solutions.

Understanding National Perspectives on Oil and Gas Debates: A Summary Report of 2016 National Survey

To learn more about this timely and important research visit the website:

Understanding Policy Conflicts
Research on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development

The website includes links to summary reports, presentations, and complementary studies about local, national and international public attitudes and awareness of policy issues related to oil and gas development.

For those who are involved in policy issues related to oil & gas development in Colorado, the research data compiled by Heikkila and Weible and featured at this website provides a valuable resource for understanding the strengths and weaknesses surrounding the various issues as they relate to developing strategy for the foreseeable future.

Warning: You may wind up, as I did, spending hours poring over all the fascinating information, data, and insights presented.

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