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Personal Attacks and Attempts to Discredit Critics Likely to Backfire on Industry
Anyone that follows my work, here at ColoradoPols or IRL, is likely to know I am an environmentalist, activist, and outspoken about my opinions. I’m even being harassed with a SLAPP action by a Texas-based oil and gas company, that wants to drill in the North Fork Valley where I live, and that didn’t like me posting in a Facebook comment what was being widely reported elsewhere. But I’m not one to be backed-down by bullies. So I’ve kept at it.
The North Fork of the Gunnison River makes its way out of Colorado’s wild forests in the Thompson Divide area, through the fertile North Fork Valley, finally joining the mighty Gunnison River just after it roars out of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Locally referred to as the North Fork, this river emerges from some of Colorado’s most spectacular high-country wildlands and sustains a thriving farming and ranching community and Colorado’s highest concentration of organic farms.
That report also resulted in a guest column from a local hunting outfitter that ran in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
A few years ago, I was guiding for an outfitter around the Ragged Mountains in western Colorado—not that far from the Bull Mountain area where another new drilling plan was just recently in the news (Daily Sentinel, Oct. 5). It was archery season, and the first morning of my client’s hunt. Excited to get out in the predawn darkness to listen for early bugles from the elk, we were instead greeted with an eerie half-light illuminating the trees. Across the canyon was a new gas well flaring methane. We carried on with our hunt, but the flare’s false first morning light made my jaw clench, sticking with me to this day. I don’t think my hunter enjoyed it either. It stole some magic from what is a near sacred time: September in the mountains chasing bugles.
…My family uses propane where we live, and power to operate our business. We all rely on energy, but I take issue with the incessant drive by companies to develop any place they can, regardless of what’s already there and without public purpose or need. Natural gas is a glutted market and public lands don’t exist to serve one industry’s interest over so many others.
We’ve faced down this threat before. We all understand the importance of energy and are grateful for it. But it is short-sighted and makes little sense to put time-tested, reliable, and sustainable economies at risk for a boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas. There are places on our public lands, like Colorado’s North Fork Valley, that are simply too wild to drill.
This even-handed guest column from a hunting guide during hunting season, resulted in a full-on ad hominid barrage in a response column from the director of the Western Slope arm of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA).
His op-ed assault blasted the author and all who might agree as “eco-elitists,” “eco-snobs,” “eco-activists,” and “faux enviro-intellectuals” among other overly-contrived invective.
… Activists who promote this brand of eco-elitism patronize moderate people. Such righteous eco-snobbery should be rejected and replaced with a more optimistic belief that energy, agriculture and recreation can exist together as pillars of the regional economy.
… Eco-activists in Delta County who promulgate the slogan “Too Wild Too Drill” operate under a faulty assumption that tends to unify homogeneous enclaves of eco-elites.
…Faux enviro-intellectualism propagates cartoon slogans like, “Too Wild to Drill,” perpetuating a false choice.
And then the letters came in response. At least eight letters ran critiquing the Western Slope COGA column (as of December 4) along with a column by Sentinel regular—and long-time Western Colorado voice and advocate—Jim Spehar.
Most took the Western Slope COGA column-writer to task for his arrogant, condescending, and insult-laden verbiage in response to a local hunting guide raising legitimate concerns about the shared public lands he uses and enjoys.
Others just took it as more business-as-usual attack from an industry that lashes out first, then asks questions later. (One question might be, for example: Does this level of personal insult make us look better or worse in the eyes of the public we must eventually make peace with?).
And therein lies the problem. The unwillingness of this industry to engage in any meaningful dialogue with those who are skeptical or worried about its practices. Instead industry spokespeople rush to attack, bully, and discount.
But the number of Coloradans with real concerns, based on real experiences, are growing. And the shop-worn tactics to belittle and demean are ineffective, at best. Its hard to tell sensible folk to disbelieve their own eyes, which is—more and more—what the PR teams from the oil and gas lobby seem to be advising.
One letter writer responding to the oil and gas association column wrote:
Choice of words can be important tools for reaching out. I would suggest phrases like “cartoon slogans,” “shallow justification,” and “homogeneous enclaves” don’t really progress a conversation and are disingenuous.
…A “non-elitist” company can join WSCOGA for as much as $15,000.
BS-detectors should blare when the West Slope’s preeminent oil and gas lobby group calls farmers “snobs.” As the recent passage at Broomfield’s ballot box showed, Coloradans are sick of raising legitimate concerns only to be dismissed and belittled by ad hominem attacks. Such boilerplate blather is fallacious and the refuge of those who know they have no other ground to stand on.
Not too long ago a Colorado appellate court found that a plain reading of the state’s oil and gas charter requires protecting health and the environment as first priority. At the same time natural gas remains over-abundant. So much so that boosters hope to ship off America’s energy resources to China – even if they have to frack our best public lands and our most critical wildlife habitat.
And a third:
Today it’s our small farming community; tomorrow it might be a school playground or a retirement community. So, what comes across as petulant noise from Mr. Ludlam is just a tactic to minimize legitimate concerns of Coloradans, and to try to diminish our credibility.
There have also been several letters from those opposing the letter-writers that critiqued the Western Slope COGA column, all from workers in the oil and gas industry. The first came from an oil and gas executive, and was full of the typical talking-down to that those concerned about public health, safety, and a clean environment are used to by now when speaking up. The knee-jerk dismissals, passive-aggressive tendencies, and entitled victimhood schtick, are all well-known and well-worn when it comes to industry tactics.
The second letter to run came from a member of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association board of directors, and took a different approach: Science means that oil and gas drilling can happen safely, and that perhaps—the subtext suggests throughout—those that are concerned about public health, safety, and a clean environment are just uneducated and ill-informed; therefore, the letter concludes, there is no need to put places off limits to this industrial activity.
… I know the local energy industry isn’t what activists have characterized this week. Instead, the natural gas industry is an incredible conflation of physics, chemistry, engineering and environmental science all working together.
…From someone who uses science every day to protect the environment, I believe activists might have a more balanced and thoughtful perspective if they understood the industry.
…there is simply a disconnect between those who use energy and agriculture products and their understanding of where raw materials come from.
… we should turn to science and environmental stewardship to make sure energy is produced responsibly rather than falling victim to unhealthy all-or-none thinking that results in extreme policy ideas like “Too Wild to Drill” and energy and leasing bans.
This letter-writer raises some valid points, even if he does fall into the familiar “if only the critics would educate themselves” pejorative, as if the farmers, small business owners, energy workers, ranchers, and others in the North Fork don’t know where agricultural products and electricity come from.
Yes, the world runs on energy. This is not in dispute. And industrial development has impacts and carries risk of harm. This is also not in dispute. At least not according to science. That is why environmental services and remediation jobs exist on drilling teams, and throughout the energy industry. Thank goodness for them and the work they do.
Of course, where we do develop for fossil fuel resources, even as we do all we can to limit their use and move past their necessity, we expect nothing less than diligence on the part of the operators. But it is not a favor the industry does, working within public health, safety, and environmental regulations. It is their obligation, and in many cases regulations came about because people and their representatives demanded them.
Because things do go wrong. Even with regulations. Valves get left open. Things spill. Poorly monitored gathering pipelines and flow-lines leak, with some regularity according to information compiled by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and a lot of that is based on industry self-reporting.
This year in Colorado’s oil and gas fields we’ve had an exploding home, numerous spills and leaks—many of which have impacted groundwater, releases, tank explosions, and other mishaps. Industrialization brings heavy truck traffic on already deadly under-serviced roads. It can degrade wildlife habitat. It displaces other uses on public lands. It can scar the landscape.
These are not scare tactics, but statements of fact. There are literal reams available in actual journals on the matter. Empirical data, the stuff of science. Do these things happen everywhere? Some do some don’t, and they pose more and less of a risk on whatever given landscape. But they are neither negligible nor nonexistent. Land use decisions are about trade-offs and most appropriate use.
And that is the crux of the issue. America sits on a glut of natural gas. One can read all sorts of analysis and opinion on that issue too, in the oil and gas magazines and blogs. “What will we do with it all?” they wonder.
Demanding the industry does it right where they operate, and keeping them out of places that are better managed for other uses is a rational approach to balancing legitimate energy needs of America and protection of the vast set of public and natural treasures our public lands provide.