It’s somewhat debatable whether the “Fracking Debate” was actually a debate

The Colorado Statesman

Last week the Independence Institute and the Environmental Alliance teamed to organize a “Just the Fracking Facts” debate at the Denver Post Auditorium. Despite considerable promotion of the event it only attracted 50 or 60 observers, most of whom were solidly allied with one side or the other in this slow, simmering dispute. Colorado voters, however, appear destined to hear a lot more about this conflict between now and election day. Anti-frackers have announced their intention to place a local control amendment in the state constitution that will allow towns and counties to override statewide oil and gas drilling regulations with their own additional restrictions. Tens of millions of dollars are likely to be spent in the effort to persuade residents to either approve or kill this initiative.

You may already have noticed the “Energy Chaos” ads in this paper that represent an early salvo from the energy industry in support of a consistent and uniform set of fracking requirements across the state. If last week’s discussion is any indicator, there will be a lot of confusion before voters arrive at the ballot box. For those who equate the joint presidential news conferences held every four years with a genuine debate, the “Fracking Facts” conversation, moderated by political consultant Eric Sondermann, had to be puzzling. Presidential candidates generally attempt to evade providing a specific answer to the same question. During this debate responses left the audience feeling like it was simultaneously watching a split screening of two different movies with overlapping soundtracks.

On behalf of the Independence Institute were John Harpole, a long time oil and gas operator, and Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade association. Representing the Environmental Alliance were retired federal regulator Phillip Poe and sustainable capitalism advocate Hunter Lovins. Environmental advocate John Powers appeared to serve as debate team captain for the anti-frackers, while Jon Caldara managed his industry troops. Recalling my own experience as a high school debater, this initially seemed an auspicious arrangement. One speaker from each team could set forth its argument while the other offered rebuttals. Alas, this was not to be. Sgamma kicked off the discussion with a detailed defense of the local economic benefits, nearly flawless safety record and geo-political advantages that have proceeded from the country’s natural gas boom of recent years.

Poe rebutted none of this, using his time to flog the long history of corporate duplicity in the tobacco industry and the consequent deaths of tens of millions of American smokers. Implicit in his remarks seemed to be a charge that frackers have and are continuing to conduct a campaign of deliberate disinformation regarding the risks inherent to their drilling technology. Harpole was nearly fuming with indignation when his turn came and he pointed out that no one was defending the behavior of cigarette manufacturers, which had been despicable, and beyond that, there was absolutely no connection with fracking. At this point it became evident the evening’s discussion was likely to spin out of control. Lovins, whose sneering insolence and repeated reliance on her personal computer for names and numbers, only appeared interested in highlighting imminent threats from climate change and our need to swiftly transition to a renewable energy grid — sorely testing her credibility.

Sgamma pointed out that the natural gas bonanza resulting from fracking could provide the nation with an environmentally friendlier transition fuel as it moves to a more sustainable energy mix. Her defense of natural gas as the “least cost” and safest available alternative fell on deaf ears with Lovins and Poe. There was considerable squabbling over how long it will take us to burn through this newfound reservoir of cheap gas (seven years on the low end and 25 on the high side), as well as how quickly we could restructure the nation’s infrastructure to accommodate renewables, not to mention the considerable expense involved. Poe repeatedly referred to horizontal fracking as an experimental and largely untested technology, incensing both Harpole and Sgamma. He also grumbled about the threat of volatile organic compounds escaping at drill sites. Yet, when asked to identify a single frack site that had contaminated groundwater, neither Lovins, even with the assistance of her Internet connection, nor Poe could name one. With more than 40,000 fracked wells operating in Colorado alone, it seems we would have heard about any ecological disasters if they existed.

Oddly enough, you could leave this debate largely in agreement with both sides. Yes, we almost certainly should be moving our economy towards a sustainable energy infrastructure primarily reliant on renewables. And, yes, we should probably frack the bejeezus out of American shales in order to make this transition as painless as possible. A sensible discussion of these choices requires we talk about them one at a time. Conflating the risks of global warming with an interim reliance on fracking informs no one. In fact there is almost certainly a grand bargain to be struck here — one relying on mutual trust and respect rather than appeals to fear.

In closing, Sondermann asked where the debaters stood on the question of a ballot initiative enabling local drilling restrictions. Lovins responded by claiming she was an adherent of Jeffersonian democracy — interpreted as voter control exercised closest to home. This seemed a convenient fiction for someone who also favors an immediate, wholesale conversion to energy sustainability now!