The Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force: Still a Chance for Science to Inform Fracking Policy

, , Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | September 10, 2014, 11:37 am EDT
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When news broke last month that the state of Colorado would be creating a blue-ribbon task force to study the impacts and inform regulation of hydraulic fracturing in the state, I wrote about the opportunity for science. In a state that has been ground zero in the fracking debate in many ways, this is a chance, I wrote, for Colorado to take a step back and consider how science can better inform oil and gas development there. Unfortunately, yesterday’s announcement of the task force membership shows this has yet to be the case.

A science-informed task force?

This week Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced the members of the oil and gas task force. Scientists were notably absent from the 19-member panel. Photo: Colorado.gov

This week Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced the members of the oil and gas task force. Scientists were notably absent from the 19-member panel. Photo: Colorado.gov

Yesterday, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper announced the composition of the blue-ribbon task force that will be charged with studying and advising the state on issues around oil and gas development. The 19-person task force includes a diversity of stakeholders—community activists, legal experts, industry representatives, farmers and ranchers—but a group noticeably absent? Scientists. A rundown of the member backgrounds suggests the task force includes just two members with any relevant technical expertise (Will Toor and Peter Dea); and only one with no obvious financial ties to the oil and gas industry (Toor).

If I were Governor Hickenlooper and convening a panel of minds to advise me on a scientifically complex issue like hydraulic fracturing, I would want technical experts to play a major role in that advice. To be sure, it is essential that legal experts, affected residents, and others also have a seat at the table, but wouldn’t you also want scientific knowledge as one of those inputs?

A missed opportunity

In case this isn’t apparent, oil and gas operations today in Colorado and elsewhere are highly technical. Industry hires engineers, technicians, and chemists to conduct hydraulic fracturing operations. Federal and state governments employ geologists, water quality experts, and air pollution experts to monitor and regulate oil and gas operations. Academic researchers who study fracking impacts include ecologists, physicists, and social scientists, to name just a few.

Colorado has been plagued with conflicts and concerns over its hydraulic fracturing operations, some of which are located in close proximity to residential areas. A battle has ensued over the extent to which communities have local control versus state authority. But much of the debate boils down to the basic question: Can we do this safely? In large part, this question is informed by science.  Monitoring and managing risks from oil and gas operations requires all the technical experts mentioned above and then some.

To have minimal representation from this broad array of relevant technical experts is to miss an opportunity for science to better inform how oil and gas development happens in Colorado.

Still a chance for science

Given this science-starved panel, what can Governor Hickenlooper do? I would argue there is still an opportunity for science to inform the process. One promising option is for the governor to convene a science advisory panel.  Such a panel could work with and make recommendations to the task force, which, in turn, could ensure that scientific advice informs their recommendations to the governor and state legislature. This allows the task force’s work to be informed by scientific expertise.

There is plenty of precedence for science advisory panels informing policy-making bodies. One of the most well-known is the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB). The EPA SAB includes diverse experts from outside the agency and informs the EPA on a host of technical issues, ranging from radiation exposure to drinking water quality.  Similarly, the US Commission on Ocean Policy was a panel of experts charged with studying and making recommendations for a comprehensive national ocean policy and the Commission decide to add an additional science advisory panel to help their deliberations.

In a public statement, Governor Hickenlooper remarked that, “Critical to the success and effectiveness of this task force is ensuring there is balanced and informed representation.” I hope that however the task force proceeds, the governor takes this opportunity to ensure that representation is informed by science.

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  • Richard Solomon

    A science advisory panel is better than only having one scientist with no vested interests with any of the stakeholders on such a task force. But it is still one step removed from the actual dialogue that will determine what recommendations will be made to the Governor.

    A better solution would be for the Governor to revamp the task force to include more scientists. He could expand it to 21, or even more, members so that more scientists actually sit at the table while deliberations are going on. That, of course, would require that the Governor do something that pols typically resist tooth and nail: acknowledge that one has made a mistake and change course.

    Admittedly, this is only one state where fracking is taking place. But it can set a precedent which will affect other states.

    • Hi Richard, Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that this is an excellent opportunity for Colorado to set an example for other states that are also struggling with the best way to oversee oil and gas operations, deal with issues around local versus state control, and importantly, address residents’ concerns. A panel that is informed by technical experts is the best way forward at this point. Here’s hoping that Colorado takes this opportunity.

      • Richard Solomon

        Thanks, Gretchen. Perhaps UCS members who reside in Colorado should write the Governor and their members of the Legislature to suggest that the task force be expanded to include more scientists? If this was going on here in Calif where I live, I would do that!