Monday, July 27, 2015

Risk, Reward, and Your Gas Pedal

Who wouldn’t want to understand the risks? Of any activity really.  You don’t bungie jump from a bridge without checking the ropes.  And you wouldn’t leave your kid with a sitter without checking their references. (Well maybe the second kid.)

I fasten my seat belt and floss my teeth.  I over buy insurance and have to exercise restraint when my boys climb trees.  By any measure, I am risk averse.

So when people say, we shouldn’t drill or frack or develop oil and gas without understanding all the risks, I’m sympathetic. Really sympathetic.

We have to understand our relationship with risk to thoughtfully contemplate our tolerance for oil and gas development.  Yet most conversations about fracking or oil and gas development are happening in a vacuum, a vacuum where there are only risks, and no rewards.  And that is a dead end conversation.

Even the most risk averse among us (ie me) takes zillions of risks daily: every step, every drive (heaven help us!), every bite of food.  If you have children, you know that it feels like one of your organs is out in the world taking risks incessantly, and its terrifying.  So what risks do we tolerate and why?

We tolerate risks whose benefits are immediate and comprehensible.  If I don’t leave the house, I don’t work.  If I don’t let my child out and about, they wither. We take all kinds of silly risks for fun (yes I’m talking about you climbers and mountain bikers! Stay away from my boys!).

There’s really no more all-pervasive benefit than those provided by oil and gas.  Oil and gas is the lifeblood of our commerce, economy, transportation, nutrition, enjoyment, and consumption.  Without it, traffic would literally stop and we’d be bereft of most food, water, heat, cooling, electronics, plastics, and shelter.

So why do we often see such a low tolerance for the risk of oil and gas? There will be those that argue that the risks are so extreme and high, but I don’t think that’s it.  I think it’s that we take our oil and gas resources so completely for granted, that we assume they will be there, even if we oppose their production.

Which leaves us with a couple of choices:

One: Limit oil and gas development to where we can’t see it; or,

Two: Develop a thoughtful risk-reward conversation about oil and gas development, more akin to the relationship we have to driving our cars.  (The incessant, mortal threat of driving is much higher!)

I suppose there is a third – get off fossil fuels all together.  But let’s work with what we’ve got in front of us right now, which is a world where 84% of all energy comes from fossil fuels.  And that doesn’t mention all those awesome by-products like fertilizer, plastics, and electronics.

For the sake of limiting the blog to a size you can read over your cup of coffee, I’m going to dismiss the first as unfair and total bullshit (although unfortunately common) and the third as visionary but not realistic.  So let’s focus on number 2.

Would you be willing to acknowledge the benefits of oil and gas in your life before engaging in a conversation about risk? Will you contemplate an existence with very limited transportation, electricity, heating, cooling, lighting, purchased goods and services, and no plastics and electronics? 
And now we can start cooking with gas.  Metaphorically.  And I suppose literally, depending on the risks you are willing to tolerate or your summer BBQ.

Those risks vary based on your relationship and distance to the drilling; not all conversations about oil and gas are created equally.  A multi-pad site across the street is invasive in a way that unseen drilling across town is not.  A mineral owner with royalties may love the site of frack trucks on the property exuding the “smell of money” which simply stinks to the unbenefitting neighbor across the way.

It’s interesting that across Colorado the concerns that communities have with oil and gas risk evolve as a community’s familiarity with oil and gas grows. We know that the most pervasive challenges of living with oil and gas drilling in your community have to do with traffic, noise, and dust.  These are the most trying and significant of concerns and they are not easily remedied.  They have real effects.

I don’t think we should minimize the downsides of drilling or ignore the risks of oil and gas development.  It’s just that the road to responsible development runs through complex territory, where once we acknowledge our personal and societal interdependence on oil and gas, the conversation becomes a lot more interesting.

If you would like to see more blogs on oil and gas development, risk, and risk communication, send your blog ideas to

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