Down the Fracking Hole: Why Natural Resource Issues Are So Divisive and What to Do About It

During the government shutdown, I thought I’d run some posts about other organizations involved in the same kinds of issues as the Forest Service and see if they run into the same kinds of problems, and whether they’ve found solutions. It’s kind of a “you’re not alone” or “it’s not just you” approach.

This piece is by Tisha Schuller with the tagline “After years on the front lines of Colorado’s energy fights, here’s what I’ve learned about why natural resource issues are so divisive—and what to do about it.” The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. Thanks to PERC for providing the link.

Some women enter the field, as Schuller did, with the idea of peace-making. I wonder whether there’s a gender difference (not 100%, of course) in the attitude of folks like her, compared to what Chief Thomas called “paid gladiators”? The kind of people who think that if we all understood each other better, had compassion for each other, and worked together, we could make the world a better place despite our differences? Let’s keep an eye out for these potential environmental peacemakers (Patty Limerick is another).

Needlessly Dividing

To prevent the emotional discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we surround ourselves with like-minded people. The informational echo chambers allow us to experience more day-to-day harmony. By feeding ourselves news and intellectual conversations that reinforce our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, we create a cycle that further exacerbates the certainty of our own perspective.

This makes the exploration of scientific information quite challenging, especially amidst our polarized national politics. Loud, soundbite-spewing voices are needlessly dividing conversations about our environmental, natural, and economic resources. With this backdrop, intelligent conversations about tradeoffs of energy development become nearly impossible. In a cooler political climate, inhospitable to ill-founded passions, smart and reasonable people would discuss evidence concerning fracking. How I long for this elusive place.

Monitoring.. Or Maybe Not

The voluntary baseline sampling program was a clear success. It demonstrated that operators were willing to be proactive to assuage public concerns. A year later, the program would be codified as a state regulation with official COGA support. Today, tens of thousands of water sampling data are publicly available. The new mountain of data took the question of whether oil and gas development was systematically contaminating groundwater off the table. It was not.

The program, however, did nothing to resolve the conflicts around oil and gas development in Colorado. Public concern about oil and gas development quickly morphed into new issues. Initially, I was surprised. Each time one topic was resolved by a study or a new regulation, the next surfaced seemingly instantaneously. Now I understand the dynamic more clearly: Communities were concerned about fracking in their hearts and their guts, so they would find no shortage of new issues to worry about.

Difficult Conversations

Combining all of these biases, we can begin to understand why having a conversation about resource conflicts is so difficult. Cognitive dissonance makes us seek out sources of information that we are likely to agree with. We hear data that fit our worldview. Then source amnesia and the repetition effect kick in. All of this is exacerbated by the most familiar of all biases: confirmation bias. We seek out sources of information that confirm what we believe and dismiss the data that doesn’t. The result is the opposite of a virtuous cycle.

6 thoughts on “Down the Fracking Hole: Why Natural Resource Issues Are So Divisive and What to Do About It”

  1. Unfortunately, the new issues have merit, she doesn’t address them and is still using selective issues to bolster the industry. Until she addresses the real risks, I’ll leave her out of Mother Theresa’s class.

  2. Pam, do you know what the “new issues” are? And the “real risks?” Because during our recent election, we had a ballot initiative in Colorado and there was a great deal of discussion of these topics. We had two kinds of folks the “leave it in the ground” folks, and the “not near my house” folks. They seemed to have had different issues that they thought were important.

    The ballot initiative was voted down despite an otherwise Democratic set of victories in Colorado. There is definitely something more to this than the common narrative would allow. We had an emergency declaration Christmas Eve of a potential propane shortage.

  3. Nimbies may be interested in USGS forecasts for induced earthquakes, silica mining altering weather patterns, historical propane “shortage” proclamations and rate hikes, and building with wood stoves in mind. I have been heating with wood in the Green Mountains, the Catskills and the Ozarks for 40 years. And here in Arkansas, our oaks like smoke. Unbelievable in this day and age anyone could think that somehow their backyard is unconnected to the universe. Interesting to also look at the “fossil” fuel shortage. Is it fossil, really? What would the keep it in the grounders do without the industry.

    • I’m not clear what you’re saying, Pam. What’s easy in one state (or part of a state) not in another. Some western areas with trees have burning restrictions for stoves due to air quality. Some parts of our state (and neighboring states) don’t have trees in the quantities needed.
      Some parts of our state have problems with homeowners doing Firewise efforts and nowhere to put the slash. Firewood prices are not enough to move it far, and if the prices were higher many poor people who use it as their own heating source (and don’t cut their own) could not afford it. And certain species should not be moved anyway due to the threats of spreading diseases and insects. It’s all very complicated.

  4. What frustrates me about these types of conversations/debates is the lack of recognition of what the bigger picture could be if one side or the other were to get their way. Regarding a propane shortage, if reduced extraction truly did lead to a shortage, what would the “keep it in the ground” advocates tell the family that cannot heat their house, especially during the winter months? What would the O&G industry tell homeowners when their neighborhood’s air quality becomes toxic, threatening their children’s health?

    The short-sighted gains ignore the consequences that occur decades later. Even with problems that are being discovered now, I find myself thinking, “who was the idiot that thought this was a good idea?” The trick is to rein in the vitriolic extremes and have a more constructive conversation around central values, but our society has yet to discover how to this effectively.


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