In hindsight, I don’t blame them for being hostile. I was insufferable. I would come from Boulder, Colorado, with my long, straight hair and peasant skirts to a remote field location in, say, rural Georgia. My job: introduce oil and gas workers to the importance of environmental management practices. After a long flight and drive, I’d walk into a shop smelling of grease and diesel. A skeptical field hand would open a folding table and set up two rows of cold metal chairs. I would set up my projector and laptop and cast images on a white wall, or, if I was lucky, a stand-up projector screen. With all the enthusiasm of an adolescent puppy, I would begin.
Their crossed arms and narrowed eyes stunned me. I was hurt, embarrassed, angry, and self-righteous at the reception I got. If only these people could understand how important this was! They needed to listen to me!
I tried different tactics to soften the atmosphere, some more effective than others. But most importantly, I learned to begin all the sessions with questions. I asked questions, and I listened — about their work, about what was important to them, about what “environmental” meant to them.
By learning the language of these oil and gas workers, by listening to their stories about their work and their lives, I quickly found common ground with them. They cared about their families and their communities. They wanted to protect them. They valued clean air, clean water, and proper management of waste. The key was changing the way I communicated.
Environmentalism isn’t just about the science; it’s personal. It’s about family and community, experiences of camping, hunting, and fishing. It is a powerful motivator and a broadly shared value. Tapping into those values became more important to me than preaching the gospel of environmentalism. When I started listening, the rest fell into place. They made it through their training requirement, and I became a teacher rather than a lecturer.
Back in Boulder, my husband Brian and I didn’t discuss our environmental choices. We didn’t think we needed to. Eating organic, heating our house with wood, volunteering for the Center for Native Ecosystems were just things we did. For us, living as close to the land as possible seemed romantic and responsible. We imagined we were doing our part.
At that time, we were not conscious of the requisite amount of hypocrisy this life entailed. It’s only now that I consider how living in the mountains required a 30-minute commute. To perform the unending projects required of us up there, we needed a truck, so I drove a fuel-inefficient F-150. We heated our house primarily with wood, which made us self-sufficient but huge particulate polluters. We consumed a lot, even if it was organic, natural, and as often as possible, locally sourced.
It’s easy to live like this in Boulder, Colorado. We were comfortable and happy among people who for the most part looked, acted, and thought like we did. I imagine there are enclaves like this in every college town around the country. Couples special-ordering their BPA-free water bottles and organic kale. We were hardworking and well-intentioned, but I can see in hindsight how privileged a life we lived. Everyone in our world was liberal-minded, and Brian and I took everything a little bit further, thinking we were genuinely walking the walk.
So of course, when Xcel Energy came calling, I jumped at the chance to pay $2.50 a month to support development of their first wind farm. While my consulting clients now consisted almost entirely of oil and gas companies, I remained uncomfortable with the work. Like so many others, I believed that wind and solar were beautiful, simple, clean energy sources, and I was excited to be part of making the switch in Colorado.
It was only several years later that I had my first face-to-face encounter with an actual wind farm. Ironically, I was permitting a gas storage facility in northeastern Colorado at the time. I always looked forward to visiting that site, about a hundred miles from Boulder, because it’s one of those places with endless big sky and gently rolling hills. You can easily imagine early settlers and long winters. Hope, hardship, and beauty as far as the eye can see.
But on this particular day in 2005, after several hours of driving on rural, two-lane highways, I pulled up to a staggering sight. Literally, as far as the eye could see, were massive wind turbines — gigantic machines that created the effect of an army of alien robots coming to take over eastern Colorado.
I exhaled and mentally fell to my knees. The sweet smell of grass, the cool breeze — and the sound! The whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the turning turbines was disturbingly disorienting. I looked to the horizon and was surprised to find that I was dizzy. This was wind energy?
It was an emotional moment, but not for the reasons I might have imagined when I decided to sign up for wind energy. I turned my attention back to the natural gas facility I was permitting. One lonely acre that had already been subjected to numerous cultural and biological surveys and a forest’s worth of paperwork requirements. Which had more overall environmental impact? I remember thinking.
I didn’t have the answers, but I knew it was time to find out.
And thus began the process of changing my mind. Or I should say, learning to change my mind because, as I’ve discovered, changing one’s mind requires more effort and self-awareness than holding onto one’s beliefs. Life in Boulder County among friends and colleagues with whom I had so much in common — that was comfortable and easy. There hadn’t seemed to be any need to think critically about the environmental values I took for granted.
It is only in hindsight that I see the towers of self-righteousness I had built. We were right and they were wrong, and for the most part, I had contact only with the “we” characters. It was a long, slow process of discerning what I thought I knew from what I know now. Questioning the beliefs and values that I took for granted wasn’t easy.
By 2009, I had achieved some clarity about how to reconcile my environmental values with what I’d learned over fifteen years as an environmental consultant for oil and gas companies. That spring, I arranged an introduction to Fred Julander. Fred was a legend in the oil and gas industry who had spent most of his career swimming upstream against popular industry opinion. He was among the first in the industry to recognize that natural gas was an important fuel at a time when most producers viewed it as, at best, a by-product of oil production or, more often, a nuisance to be flared off at the wellhead.
More recently, Fred had been among the first to recognize that global warming was a real issue that the industry not only needed to deal with but also might prosper from. Because it produced significantly fewer emissions than coal when burned in power plants, while also offering a lower-emissions alternative to oil in the transportation sector, Fred believed natural gas — long the poor stepchild of the oil and gas industry — was primed to take a leading role.
The calculus was relatively straightforward: natural gas outperformed coal by almost every environmental metric.
Fred had helped found the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and was the driving force behind its annual conference. That was what I wanted to talk to him about. Colorado’s governor at the time, Bill Ritter, had set Colorado on a path to becoming a national leader in renewable energy. I pitched Fred on an idea for a panel at COGA’s upcoming conference on why Ritter’s clean-energy vision for Colorado could and should include natural gas. Governor Ritter would in fact end up making natural gas a cornerstone of his “new energy economy” vision. But at the time, it was still a novel, untested idea.
The panel was controversial — as any good panel is. Many in the oil and gas industry were as skeptical about whether they wanted to be included in the new energy economy as new energy economy proponents were dubious about including the industry. But the panel was successful and well received. Little did I know what would come next.
Shortly after that 2009 conference, Fred invited me to breakfast. COGA was beginning its search for a new CEO, and Fred wanted me to apply. Intellectually, it made no sense. It had been a stretch for COGA to have me — a greenie from Boulder — moderate a panel at their conference. Why on earth would they even consider me for their CEO?
Yet somehow, I knew I was going to get the job. And 27 interviews later, I did. Ready or not, I was about to become the face of Colorado’s oil and gas industry.
Back when I started the job, in early 2010, many forward-thinking environmentalists still viewed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” — a lower-carbon transitional step away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy future.
The calculus was relatively straightforward. Forty-five percent of US electricity production was provided by coal and about 25 percent by natural gas. Natural gas was cheap and produced half the carbon emissions of coal. Gas plants were inexpensive to build, and there was already a huge fleet of natural gas–fired power plants around the country operating well below their full capacity, because they had originally been deployed to ramp up and down to meet fluctuating electricity demand, not to provide baseload power around the clock.
Gas plants also produced significantly fewer conventional air pollutants than coal plants did. In fact, natural gas outperformed coal by almost every environmental metric. Furthermore, as a fuel for cars and trucks, natural gas was not only cheaper than oil, but also provided significant opportunities to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. It should have been a win-win-win-win, for the environment, public health, the economy, and yes, the oil and gas industry.
And for a while it was. Hell, even the Sierra Club liked natural gas back then, so much so that the national organization accepted $26 million in contributions from Chesapeake Energy, the largest natural gas producer in the country, in support of its Beyond Coal campaign.
Back when I started the job, many forward-thinking environmentalists still viewed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” — a lower-carbon step away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy future.
That was why I had taken the job at COGA — to ensure that natural gas could be a viable and responsible part of the solution to climate change. But no sooner had I taken the job than the politics began to shift beneath my feet.
In the spring of 2011, two Cornell University professors published a study that purported to show that methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, leaked from natural gas wells at such high rates as to negate the climate benefits of switching from coal to gas. The study was an outlier; the balance of evidence, before and since, suggests that methane leakage from natural gas wells is much lower than the study claimed. But its findings were widely covered in the media and seized upon by grassroots environmental activists as proof that there were no environmental benefits that might balance the local impacts of oil and gas production.
Not long afterward, a second study produced by researchers at Duke University claimed to have discovered evidence of widespread groundwater contamination in areas near fracked wells in Pennsylvania. Subsequent analysis demonstrated that groundwater contamination levels were similar in areas where fracking had not occurred. Groundwater and natural gas deposits were naturally intermingled throughout the region. But the damage had been done. The long-standing fear that fracking was polluting groundwater appeared to have been validated by a prestigious university.
By this point, it was becoming undeniably evident that natural gas was the primary driver of falling US emissions, which had been on the decline since 2007 and were already at their lowest level since 1996. But it didn’t matter. In 2010, the Sierra Club reversed its position on natural gas, disavowed (but did not return) the millions it had received from Chesapeake Energy, and eventually launched a new Beyond Natural Gas campaign alongside its Beyond Coal campaign. Much of the rest of the US environmental movement followed suit.
The night things really started to go south, I was at a Longmont City Council meeting to give a ten-minute “Oil and Gas 101” presentation at the council’s request. It was a talk I had given dozens of times to various civic groups. The meeting was scheduled to start at seven o’clock, and I was told I would be done by eight.
When I walked into the council chambers at a quarter to seven, the room was packed and buzzing with tense excitement. The first order of business was public comment. The mayor pro tem presiding over the meeting informed the audience that public comment would be limited to three minutes per speaker and that there would be “no exclaiming.” I had attended dozens of city and county meetings and had never heard any “exclaiming.”
Three minutes at a time, members of the public rose to speak about the dangers of fracking and oil and gas development. They were here for my talk, they were engaged, and they were angry. Their comments were filled with misinformation, fear, and hyperbole. I took furious notes, wondering how I could possibly dispel all these myths in my ten minutes of remarks. Every single comment but one was hostile.
At ten minutes past midnight, I was finally called up to give my ten-minute talk. It was doomed before I began. The audience hissed and scoffed at every one of my remarks. The tired, cranky, and hungry city council members just wanted to go home.
Opposition to fracking had become a culture war touchstone for liberal environmentalists in Colorado.
Within months, our tiny COGA staff was overwhelmed as Longmont’s public controversy repeated itself across the state. More than 30 communities had public processes under way to ban or obstruct oil and gas development. We built a community outreach team and hired consultants to fight antifracking ballot initiatives. I spent months going from meeting to meeting, town to town. Many nights I arrived home after midnight, before waking at five the next morning to do it all again. We tried just about everything. And we lost. A lot.
The battle even raged in my own community, where there was no proposed oil and gas development to speak of, nor was there likely to be. Nevertheless, antifracking “education” messages were distributed in mountain resident community emails, discussing the threat of fracking and encouraging residents to “Ban fracking before it’s too late!” It didn’t matter that fracking wasn’t viable in our community, nor that most of the impacts cited were exaggerated if not fabricated. Opposition to fracking had become a culture war touchstone for liberal environmentalists in Colorado.
Going anywhere in public became a nightmare. My early morning workouts were not even sacred. Before the sun was up, people I’d swum with for years were accosting me. “You’re a mother — how can you live with yourself?” Friends stopped inviting our family to dinner and on trips. It was just as well, because I was running out of energy for anything but the barest survival of the fight.
Despite all their anger and misinformation, I empathized deeply with the people who lived in a community and suddenly found their world turned upside down by drilling. The impact is similar to having a strip mall constructed in your neighborhood. Except drilling has to be conducted around the clock, so add lights and disturbed sleep to the congestion and noise.
Centralizing wells onto one pad was one way to limit the number of people affected. But it also meant that those who did live in the vicinity had to contend with a much larger well pad and longer drilling time for the many wells on that pad.
But perhaps a bigger factor affecting a household’s receptiveness to drilling was their support for the industry in the first place. I was often baffled by the incongruence of responses, as one set of neighbors would describe how benign the experience was while another set would report illnesses, disturbed sleep, and a feeling that their lives had been truly ruined by the experience. Each experience was valid. Their values affected their perceptions. Their perceptions affected their actions.
For those whose lives were going to be disrupted, being forthright about the impacts could provide only so much respite.
Community opponents were often shrill and always angry. They would stand inches from my face and yell, often with spittle flying. Yet I must admit that I felt more natural kinship with opponents than with supporters. I could imagine a parallel universe in which I myself received the knock on the door from a neighbor urging, “Come to the community meeting! They’re going to poison our children!” I probably would have gone. I might have carried the sign myself.
And so I plodded along, trying to practice empathy and compassion as best I could. Conflicts over development are not limited to energy, and they are never easy. I learned that concerned community members are not professional environmental activists. They often look the same and may carry the same signs and shout the same slogans. But their motivations are fundamentally different. They want to protect their families and their homes.
I learned to distinguish between people who simply didn’t like the idea of drilling from those who were actually going to be affected by it. Most importantly, I learned to be forthright about the impacts and focus on ways to minimize them. For those whose lives were going to be disrupted, doing so could provide only so much respite. But I found it was better to be honest with them and build their trust rather than serve up the usual sound bites and dismissals that characterized so much of the industry’s response.
In hopes of addressing some of the concerns about fracking at the statewide level rather than community by community, I initiated an effort to establish strong, voluntary statewide standards to monitor drilling and groundwater contamination. This, at the time, was the dominant public concern about fracking.
In the San Juan Basin in southwestern Colorado, there had been a mandatory baseline groundwater sampling program in place for ten years, due to the shallow depth of the groundwater and the natural intermingling of natural gas and water there. Ten years of data had demonstrated conclusively that even where groundwater was very shallow, drilling, fracking, and development could be compatible with clean and safe groundwater.
As a result of the program’s success, we decided to launch a voluntary program across the state. Whenever a participating company drilled a new well, they would take one sample from a nearby groundwater source before drilling and another sample one year later. It took months of work, but we ultimately had more than 98 percent of oil and gas operators in the state participating in the program.
Environmental groups were not impressed. While they routinely said both publicly and privately that companies should innovate — that they should “go above and beyond” and exceed regulatory requirements — these same groups were now publicly dismissive, adamant that nothing other than mandatory regulation would suffice.
Far too often, environmental organizations and activists encourage partisanship and political extremism in pursuit of ideological rather than practical ends.
A year later, the program would become part of a statewide regulation with official COGA support. Tens of thousands of water sampling data points became publicly available for assessment and analysis. These should have taken the claim that oil and gas development was systematically contaminating groundwater off the table. But they didn’t.
I had cajoled my board and industry into voluntarily implementing the program and then supporting its promulgation as part of a mandatory regulation. There was not one shred of evidence that oil and gas drilling was systematically contaminating groundwater; in fact, there was plenty of proof that it wasn’t. But what had we gotten for it? Less than nothing. Environmental groups, including important, reasonable partners like the Environmental Defense Fund, continued to lambast the rule, insisting that it hadn’t gone far enough.
Still we kept trying. We negotiated the first requirements for fracking disclosure, along with mandatory setbacks from buildings, especially from sensitive structures like schools, and better procedures for public notification and stakeholder review. All with the support of a Democratic governor and committed environmentalist, John Hickenlooper.
If I had it to do over, I would do it all again. But I wouldn’t imagine that doing so would create any peace.
Then came the threats. When I think about them, I still fold my body forward and round my shoulders. For more than a year, my family had regular check-ins from the Boulder County Sheriff. We removed all identifying names and numbers from our house and mailbox. Our neighbors and the Four Mile Fire Department kept photographs of the individuals who had threatened us. The boys often had a sheriff at their school, ever since one group of activists had posted pictures of them, their school, and school address online with taglines like “Disgusting.”
Many people in our local community rallied around us. One of my neighbors, who for years had put antifracking New York Times articles in my mailbox (just in case I didn’t get that he thought it unsafe, I suppose), ended up plastering a “Coloradans love fracking” bumper sticker on his snowplow truck, always parked conspicuously in front of his house. As he explained it to me, “I don’t love fracking. But I do love the Schullers, and if any of those ‘anti’ people come here, I want them to know that they are in the wrong neighborhood.”
We were fortunate to receive local, state, and FBI investigative support. That scared away the amateurs. And thankfully, it appears we were never seriously targeted. But environmental and liberal groups never spoke out against the tactics used against my family. Their implied judgment seemed to be that my family and I deserved the threats and harassment we received.
For several years, I stopped calling myself an environmentalist. After five years of threats, extremism, and misinformation from a community I’d once considered myself a part of, I simply couldn’t use the term anymore.
It’s easier, now, to unwind my complex relationship with environmentalism and environmentalists. I’m no longer a target of constant criticism and threats, for one, and I have the mental leisure to dissect my own experiences and prejudices. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve become passionate about reclaiming the term. I am an environmentalist.
But I can no longer embrace many of the totems that have come to define environmentalism for many people. For those of us chugging along in our liberal, urban lives, the environmental truisms are clear-cut: Recycling is good. SUVs are bad (if necessary). Light rail is good (if not always practical). Wind and solar energy are good. Fracking and nuclear energy are bad.
People are mostly lazy about their political positions. My understanding of health care policy, for example, is simplistic and guided by what I read in the New York Times and hear from Democratic politicians. The same is true of education and any number of other issues that I have not spent most of my professional life immersed in. This is how most people engage questions of energy and the environment.
For those of us chugging along in our liberal, urban lives, the environmental truisms are clear-cut: Wind and solar energy are good. Fracking and nuclear energy are bad.
Far too often, environmental organizations and activists take advantage of that ignorance, encouraging partisanship and political extremism in pursuit of ideological rather than practical ends. And for that, there is a price to be paid. The price is the loss of incremental, pragmatic improvements to policies and projects that could actually make a difference on the ground, in real life, right now.
In response to this sort of politics, I can understand why so many people in this country have come to identify themselves as anti-environmentalists. But vilifying environmentalists is no way to live. No one gets to corner the market on loving the outdoors, wanting to protect special places, and taking solace and refreshment in nature.
Ultimately, most of us want the same things — a reasonable quality of life, the opportunity to improve our circumstances, and access to beautiful, healthy, natural environments. But we have wildly different ways of pursuing those dreams. A discerning environmentalism requires that we let go of some traditional positions that don’t stand up to scrutiny, honestly assess trade-offs and seek the best energy solutions, and make environmental values available to people of every political, socioeconomic, and cultural persuasion.
It could be that it’s too late for some to use the word “environmental.” It carries so much baggage for both people who subscribe to its tenets and those who have been alienated by its use. I, though, am not ready to let go of my environmental identity. It is still the core of who I am and what I care about. No one can take that away from me, nor from you.
Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 8
Featuring pieces by Charles Mann, Steven Pinker,
Varun Sivaram, Jonathan Symons, Jenny Splitter,
and Ted Nordhaus.