Amid a crowd of business owners, Windsor residents and town staff, proponents and opponents of oil and gas activity in the region jockeyed to influence Windsor’s future during a comprehensive plan meeting last May.
Town staff tried to ease the tension between oil and gas representatives and community organizations, but their best efforts were in vain. Some residents, many of them from the Windsor Community Rights Network, were dismissive of the industry representatives. Many others in the audience, who were there to shape Windsor’s future, were somewhat dismissive of the community representatives. The oil and gas representatives often looked frustrated, even tired of the accusations.
This was just one meeting, but on a broader scale, it shows how strongly rooted fear and distrust has been a part of the conflict in Weld County between the oil and gas industry and community organizations.
While it’s hard to recall a time that discussions about oil and gas weren’t met with spirited, sometimes hostile debate and skepticism, recent years have reflected an improving relationship between industry and communities in the region overall.
“Communication can help immensely,” said Sara Barwinski, spokeswoman for Weld Air and Water, a resident group working to protect the environment and community in the face of growing oil and gas operations in residential areas. “Part of that is agreeing to disagree on certain things and doing that in a respectful, dialogical way.”
On the industry side, oil and gas companies have established more efficient ways for the community to give feedback and have begun to recognize the impact of their operations on quality of life.
More Weld residents, even those such as Barwinski, who initially just wanted them to go away, now respect the corporate interests of companies and recognize the steps those in the industry are taking toward a middle ground. “There have been improvements,” Barwinski said, “but I always think there are (more) to be made.”
Ongoing frustrations, mounting questions
As oil and gas companies have grown over recent years, companies have shifted closer to residential areas. Both are fighting for what little open space is left in Greeley.
“Some of it was because we were facing a kind of paradigm shift as the sites increased in production volume,” Barwinski said. “The community, the industry, the city and the citizens were all coming to a head with how to deal with this.”
When Weld Air and Water first began negotiations about proposed sites of wells next to Northridge High School in Greeley years ago, representatives were met with a dismissive contractor. They went on to face similar communication issues with Greeley-based Mineral Resources when the organization appealed a proposed drilling site near Frontier Academy in Greeley.
The beginning negotiations were frustrating at best. Barwinski spearheaded efforts to appeal the approval of the wells near Northridge. Residents — often also among the ranks of Weld Air and Water — frequently attended community meetings expressing their concerns about safety and health impacts of having such an industrial process in their backyards.
Instead of being heard, their comments were met with criticism that they simply didn’t understand how oil and gas worked.
“We’re not just crazy people who have concerns about health,” Barwinski said at the Greeley Planning Commission meeting July 23, 2013, referencing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Colorado Department of Public Health as entities that had said they did not know the full health effects of oil and gas activity.
Barwinski later learned to compromise, as did the industry. She recognized the unlikelihood of companies just packing up and leaving. The industry budged on its plans as well. Ultimately, only a third of the wells were drilled and — using more advanced technology — they were accessed further away than originally planned.
Ideally, new restrictions and uniform standards would solve the problem by preventing those sites from reaching the planning stage in the first place.
“Rule-making would benefit everybody,” she said. “If the playing field and the marching orders are clear, it doesn’t have to be citizen by citizen or community by community or individual by individual that gets involved.”
For other community networks, no change other than the complete withdrawal of the industry from the area will be enough.
“They need to accept that some communities don’t want it,” said Carol Heinkel, spokeswoman for Windsor Community Rights Network.
The network fights for community rights of all kinds, and has received the most recent attention for their strong stance against oil and gas activity in Windsor.
To further their cause, they emphasize third-party studies and academic materials over information provided by companies. The network meets in private, as they aim to give fellow residents what they view to be a safe space to discuss what they want for the future of Windsor.
“People know they aren’t getting the truth (in the company information),” Heinkel said.
While other groups testify the industry has become better about relating to communities, the Windsor network argues simply dressing up the presentation of damaging operations under the guise of public outreach does not make it better.
“It’s not possible for us to say that the industry can present itself better,” Heinkel said. “The facts are the facts.”
Even so, not every group laments the industry’s presence.
For the Larimer Energy Action Project, which advocates for the benefits of the industry particularly in Windsor, frustration comes through active misinformation or fear campaigns lauded by oil and gas opponents.
For LEAP, oil and gas represents a source of economic growth, both through additional industry jobs and tax dollars. Additionally, they laud discussion through evidence that promotes the coexistence of both traditional and alternative energy.
“We are civil and respectful in our communications with everyone,” said Director BJ Nikkel, a former state representative whose territory included Windsor. “That is not always reciprocated to us by ‘fractivists’ who have attended our events to disrupt.”
However, as a strong proponent of property rights, Nikkel said educating other county residents on the rights of private property owners and the state constitution was particularly frustrating.
Typically, the “fractivists’??” effort includes what Nikkel calls misinformation campaigns that prey more on fear than facts, such as fracking causing drinking water contamination.
“We try to be ahead of the ‘misinformation game’ played by energy extremists,” she said. “If misinformation takes hold, it becomes much more difficult to have a discussion around the facts.”
Balancing information concerns and outside interference
In years past, the main concern of companies was how to communicate safety regulations and concerns to the public.
Now, as the conversation has expanded, public relations must respond to everything from environmental impact to the moral image of their company to demands for more transparency in their day-to-day operations.
“Best management practices used to be very focused on safety at the job site, casing a well, etc., but that spectrum has expanded,” Great Western Oil & Gas CEO Rich Frommer said.
In the past, companies opted for silence and privacy at all opportunities. Relations with the public began to improve, however, when they realized two-way communication was better than closing down to the public’s concerns and questions, especially as more people moved into the areas surrounding their operations.
This problem started a few years ago, when state groups began spreading misinformation about health impacts, which resulted in local attempts to ban fracking, he said.
Information, which had been their greatest weak spot, became one of the best tools in relating to the public and addressing rumors about the industry.
“Education is hugely important, because when we aren’t out there communicating with people about our plans and the benefits of oil and gas, others will fill that vacuum with misinformation,” Frommer said.
To aid this, they took a page out of the western Colorado operators by establishing a website — or, as they call it, a microsite — specifically built to receive direct feedback from concerned residents.
“Every company is a little bit different depending on where they operate,” he said. “Some companies that operate in very rural parts of the Western Slope, for example, approach outreach differently because the closest community is 50 miles away.”
While larger populations demand more information across the board, companies like Great Western and Anadarko Petroleum view their efforts to communicate as being overwhelmingly transparent within their trade secret limitations, though people sometimes view that as lying to the community.
“In our business, we can’t divulge the specifics of our agreements with land and mineral owners, but we can and do always let people know where we’ll be drilling, when and for how long,” Frommer said.
Great Western spends time sending representatives to community meetings where they operate, such as the Windsor comprehensive plan meetings this summer.
Anadarko makes employees available to visit schools, organizations or events to meet the public and talk about their operations and how they play a role in the local economy. Being out in the community “gives (them) a chance to tell our personal story,” said Alex Hohmann, manager of Stakeholder Relations for Anadarko.
Anadarko defines stakeholders and customers as anyone in an area affected by their operations.
“Our observation has been that not only do we need to operate with excellence but also share what it is that we do,” Hohmann said.
For Anadarko, the biggest obstacle has been getting the word out about the resources it offers its customers, which include a website to voice concerns and a hotline to contact its version of customer support. By dedicating staff to the hotline, its customers can call someone whose job is to respond to their concerns, questions or complaints, streamlining the process
While they definitely hear about road conditions and safety concerns, Hohmann said 20 to 25 percent of the inquiries that came in were from people looking for more information.
While they hear complaints, oil and gas companies do believe their efforts combined with a more public conversation setting has resulted in greater public understanding and support in recent years.
“The vast majority of the public recognizes that this industry is vital to the economic health of the state and that we are interdependent on oil and gas,” Frommer said.
Meeting in the middle
It’s hard not to argue oil and gas and community organizations butt heads on many levels, but progress comes through agreeing to disagree.
“Operators are actively involving local government and citizens,” Barwinski said. “I’ve really worked hard, as have (the companies), to develop constructive relationships with operators.”
Although their goals sometimes differ, as feedback becomes easier and operations fall into the public eye more often, compromise — or at the very least hearing each other out — lays the foundation for relationships down the road.
“Anyone operating in the (Denver-Julesburg Basin) has learned that they need to engage with local communities and build a rapport in order to be successful,” Frommer said. Unlike past efforts, companies now reach out to residents when they have plans to drill in an area.
For Anadarko, this means walking door to door to provide residents in the surrounding area with pamphlets, operation schedules and magnets that have the company’s hotline number.
Great Western provides similar materials and makes employees and staff available to speak at public meetings throughout the planning process.
“We try hard to engage in a dialogue with anyone who is impacted by our operations and has legitimate concerns,” Frommer said. “As an industry, we have to view those voices as separate from people who just want to vilify oil and gas.”
While the change has been less theatrical than public arguments, Barwinski said it was important for people to realize there had been more progress than people realize because so much was done behind the scenes.
In addition to Weld Air and Water meeting with Extraction and Synergy, the two companies met with each other to update operations as well.
“Good companies are being much more deliberate,” she said.
This change also pushes “good companies” to pressure those not meeting new standards.
“Not all companies are created equal,” Barwinski said. “Some of the companies that want to be more responsible know that companies that cut corners and run their trucks where they shouldn’t give the whole industry a black eye.”
Coupled with the fact the industry now impacts more people than ever — both in jobs and in operation size — companies have reevaluated public relations strategies to fit community demands.
“We have new neighbors and it might help us to understand what’s important to them,” Hohmann said.
Hohmann made sure to note no single company did it alone. It was rather a game of trial and error supplemented by borrowing ideas from others.
“We actually looked at other companies in oil and gas and said, ‘If they’re doing that, we ought to do that too,’?” he said.
Part of this effort goes to giving stakeholders the chance to see operations for themselves.
“There’s really no substitute for that hands-on experience, and that works better than anything to demystify (the industry),” Hohmann said. “There’s really no substitute for, ‘I was there, I saw it.’?”
At the end of day, the new dynamic has pulled the discussion at least in part away from opponents and proponents and pushed it towards more cooperative experience.
“Having a successful resolution with someone is not a linear process,” Hohmann said. “We’re dealing with people.”
This article was written by Allison Dyer Bluemel from Greeley Tribune, Colo. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.