When it comes to natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, winning public support is more important than anything else, Colorado’s top industry representative said Friday at American Renewable Energy Day (AREDay).
“Public perception is a huge, huge challenge that we are engaged in,” Tisha Conoly Schuller, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) told a crowd of environmentalists and energy experts at the Hotel Jerome. “On every level, we are learning that public perception matters.”
Schuller sat on a panel about natural gas, focused on the many controversies and political battles surrounding it.
The discussion included former U.S. Senator from Colorado Tim Wirth; former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter; oil magnates T. Boone Pickens and Fred Julander, and Aspen Science Center geologist Rich Ward.
The quintet spoke about natural gas as the key transitional energy source to move the U.S. away from dependence on foreign oil, and toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
“One of the key and most important resources available, whether one is thinking about security, climate change, job development, the economic health of the country — one of the solutions clearly is the enormous amount of natural gas that is available to us in the United States,” said Wirth, who left Congress in 1993 and currently works for the U.N. Foundation. “Why aren’t we taking advantage of that supply and how can we take advantage of that supply?”
Schuller said the biggest remaining challenge is political, and in convincing people that drilling technologies and hydraulic fracturing — known commonly as “fracking” — in their communities is safe.
“You can be a passionate environmentalist and a devoted humanist and like natural gas,” she said, “because I am one of those people.”
She compared the widespread worries about fracking — well-known to residents of the gas-rich Western Slope — to the concerns that climate change is a hoax.
“In the same way that the climate movement has to deal with this unimaginable conflict about people not believing in science, we have to do that in the conversation about hydraulic fracturing,” she said. “And the nature of the conversation is as important as the information ... The public must be willing to hear that it’s safe when it’s demonstrated.”
Julander then did his best to make an attractive natural gas pitch to AREDay’s renewable energy-friendly crowd.
“With natural gas, combined with renewables and efficiency, we win,” he argued. “We get sustainable, reasonably-priced energy throughout the world, we take away the colonialism of the oil industry, we create an economy that prospers throughout the world in an environmentally-friendly fashion and we beat climate change.”
The challenge, he agreed, is to get government leaders to stand with COGA and the oil industry in support of natural gas.
“We don’t need nuclear, we don’t need coal, we don’t need anything else,” he said. “We just need the political power.”
Pickens interjected a story about meeting the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. in 2008, shortly after Pickens had announced his plan to use wind and natural gas to supplant imported oil for energy generation in America. He said he told the ambassador his goal was to get the U.S. entirely off of Saudi oil.
Friday he told the AREDay crowd that natural gas could do that.
“It’s gonna give the United States an opportunity to sit at the big table for energy,” Pickens said. “For the last 20 years we have had no seat at the big table. When OPEC met, they met and we sat in the hall ... Now you can sit at the table and say, ‘Look, we have a resource that can compete with your oil.”
That said, Pickens characterized the domestic fight to change the energy consumption and delivery paradigm toward natural gas as “a battle royale.”
Wirth said getting different factions of the energy world to collaborate would prove equally difficult.
“The coalition has to be a natural gas, solar, wind, efficiency, renewable coalition,” he said. “This is going to be a brutal political battle.”
Ritter added that his experience as governor from 2007 to this past January proved both the difficulty and necessity of politicking for natural gas. Ritter said during his time in office he had to balance updating drilling regulations for new technology with promoting clean energy. Hearing local environmental concerns about impacts on ecology and wildlife also is a must, he argued, reminiscent of the ongoing battle over natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide, located outside of Carbondale.
“You have to be engaged in the politics of this, because there are politics involved in waging the clean energy future and making natural gas a part of it,” he said.