This article first appeared in the Post Independent. By Heidi Rice
RIFLE — Health, fracking and water were the main topics of discussion at Saturday afternoon’s “Community Conversations” event held by Colorado Mountain College at the West Garfield County Campus in Rifle.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Patty Limerick, a faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University Colorado and also a history professor.
Limerick kicked off the free event, which was attended by about 25 people, talking about her philosophy on education, communication and the application of historical perspectives to current issues and how to discuss them in a constructive way.
The seminar was called “Oil and Gas: The Adventures of a Historian in Tense Terrain.” Limerick used her expertise to analyze how people talk about oil and gas issues.
Her analogies not only included those made with sports such as football, but she also lived up to her name by converting them into a limerick.
“When you try to be neutral on fracking,
You’re a quarterback set up for sacking.
You can assert and declare,
and try to be fair,
But you’re still going to get a fair whacking.”
“But compared to sports such as football, public discussion referees are in short supply,” Limerick said.
In an almost talk-show style, with two chairs facing each other, Limerick had a “conversation” with three experts in the field of health, tracking and water.
Dr. Teresa Coons, executive director for the John McConnell Math & Science Center of Western Colorado, spoke to issues regarding health and oil and gas extraction in Garfield County. From 2005-2008, Coons was the principal investigator for a Community Health Risk Assessment of the impacts of natural gas operations on residents in Garfield County — a study that was commissioned by the Garfield County commissioners at the time.
Coons pointed out that everyone is basically interested in what the risk factors are and how it will affect them personally. And while studies are important, the results of studies trying to pinpoint one risk factor are hard to monitor with people moving around, in and out of the area, bringing with them their own exposures and diseases — some of which may take years to manifest, such as cancer.
“If I hear about a friend of mine or a neighbor in my community that has developed cancer, I think about what is it that is different about them that won’t affect me,” Coons said. “It’s about me.”
And health studies don’t include all the different factors that contribute to the results.
“The problem with health studies and population risks is that it doesn’t factor in individual risk factors, such as whether someone is young or old or what their health was at the time of exposure,” Coons said.
People are fearful when they feel they are not in control,” Coons said. “Things are happening in our backyards that we have no control over and that makes us fearful. The studies give us the potential to see what the risks are.”
But the stress of worrying about it is also a real hazard in itself that can impact a person’s health, Coons said.
Trési Houpt, former Garfield County commissioner, asked what would be the best way to approach these type of studies.
Coons replied that she doesn’t discourage studies about what goes into the air and the water from oil and gas development, but a lot of people need to be studied to obtain accurate results about health issues.
“We’re probably better off as a community to find out what risks and benefits are we willing to accept and what compromises are we willing to accept,” she said. “I think that’s a community conversation we have to have.”
Adrianne Kroepsch, a doctoral student in environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and research and teaching assistant at the Center of the American West under Limerick, addressed the issue of fracking.
Kroepsch admitted that her outlook on conventional hydraulic fracturing had changed quite a bit in the four years since she had begun studying the issue, and there is a lot she has learned.
“I used to think when people were debating oil and gas extraction, I thought they were shouting at each other,” Kroepsch said. “But then I realized, they weren’t even hitting each other — they weren’t even getting past each other.”
As far as regulations went, Kroepsch said she didn’t think there could be that many, nor could they be that complicated.
But she feels differently now.
“There are a lot of different actors involved, and it’s changing constantly,” Kroepsch admitted. “I used to think all oil and gas patches were similar. But there’s so much variation from site to site, not to mention culture and government styles.”
She also used to believe that oil and gas issues were primarily about local impacts.
“But it’s like an onion — there are layers and regional issues about things like air and climate change. I had to stop and take a step back.”
Kroepsch has also learned not to lump people into a group as “anti-industry,” because they raise questions about various issues.
“Trying to put everyone in one bucket is not fair,” she said. “You can’t categorize people who have concerns about oil and gas development. The person who you’re categorizing as anti-industry, may really have well-thought-out concerns and questions.”
Kroepsch said she has also learned oil and gas vocabulary, which has helped in understanding the issues better.
Which prompted one member of the audience to question why the word “fracking” was even used and suggested it was a media-coined term instead of it’s full name of “hydraulic fracturing.”
“The term ‘fracking’ does bear a resemblance to another word,” Limerick agreed. “Webster’s put the ‘k’ in it because they said otherwise the ‘c’ might sound soft.”
Hannah Holm is a coordinator and co-founder of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water challenges facing the Upper Colorado River Basin.
Holm said that the biggest issues facing water were that of an overall balance between supply and demand.
“Oil and gas plays into that to some degree,” she said. “But I wouldn’t put it on the top of the list of concerns.”
And Holm advised that people not have a “super narrow focus” when talking about water and oil and gas extraction.
“Of course, that’s a different question if you have a drinking water well and there’s a spill,” Holm said.
Limerick summed it up saying that in normal conditions, there should be no problem with water issues if all the rules are followed.
“If everything is done by the book, you should be fine,” Limerick said. “People need to be informed as to what’s going on, who’s in charge and be advocates for themselves and about the rules and regulations. They need to find out the details to their specific situations.”
This was the first Community Conversations the college has presented, and others are expected to follow in a series.
“We hope people can take this home and share it with others,” said Nancy Genova, vice-president of CMC’s Western Garfield County campus.