LARAMIE, Wyo. — For two days in Laramie this week, representatives of the energy industry, regulators, environmentalists, politicians, students and landowners sat and talked about the controversial but common oil and gas industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Yet the discussions didn’t go without interruption.
At one point, Deb Thomas, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council landowners group, was telling attendees about adverse health effects related to a natural gas well blowout near Clark in 2006.
Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, which co-hosted the forum, spoke from the sea of tables in the large hotel conference room.
“This really has nothing to do with fracturing,” he said, exasperation in his voice.
“If you let me finish, I’ll tell you why,” Thomas answered, then continued her presentation.
To forum attendee Miles Edwards, a source water specialist for the Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems, it was a moment that illustrated the debate about fracking here and nationwide.
On one side, as Edwards saw it, there was the conservative who sees fracking as machinery; and on the other side, the liberal who sees fracking as a practice that can have negative impacts on people.
“You saw the two sides of Wyoming,” Edwards said. “It’s the two sides of our nation. In Wyoming, I think it’s a healthy interaction.”
Regardless of Thomas’ and Northam’s possible political affiliations, the exchange defined the fracking forum: sometimes off-focus, sometimes emotional, but still an alive, direct and occasionally uncomfortable exchange of views and information between various sides of the debate about fracking.
“I’m sure that probably everybody in this room heard something that they didn’t want to hear or something they didn’t agree with,” Northam told the attendees Tuesday at the close of the event.
“That we are mostly all still here and willing to engage in dialogue about a clearly controversial issue is an encouraging sign,” he said. “Willingness of a group of people like this, with diversity, to listen to each other and focus on creating solutions is a key to the process.”
Northam’s comments were echoed by a number of attendees, both at the event and afterward in conversations with the Star-Tribune.
Linda Cooper from Bondurant is president of an organization called Stop Drilling, Save the Bridger-Teton. In comments near the end of the forum, Cooper said she believes the technology that makes fracking possible is outpacing investments in research into how the practice can affect people.
“It’s not that there’s information that government or industry or anybody else is withholding, there’s just gaps in our knowledge” because a lack of investment in that knowledge, she said.
Lloyd Larsen is one of the owners of Triple L Inc. in Lander, a construction company that performs new and maintenance construction in the petroleum industry.
While he said he got tired of politicians who spoke up during the question-and-answer periods, he left the forum with a clearer understanding of fracking and public concerns.
“I was really interested in what the take was from the public as a whole, because I’ve really watched it with some interest over the last year or so as the whole topic has evolved,” he said.
Virtually all commercial oil and gas operations in Wyoming require the use of fracking, an industry practice in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to fracture formations so oil and gas can flow.
While the practice isn’t new, its combination with directional, horizontal drilling has revolutionized the U.S. oil and gas industry but sparked concerns among many who fear the practice could pollute groundwater.
Paul Ulrich, an Encana Oil and Gas representative and a member of the forum’s steering committee, said it’s not unusual for operators in the industry to step into such forums with some fear.
“But I think it’s incredibly worthwhile that we have these discussions,” he said. “I tip my hat to the University of Wyoming for hosting this and I’m looking forward to some of the results that may come out of this.”
The forum was also hosted by the university’s Haub School and Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, of which Indy Burke is the director.
Burke said the forum showed the need to gather air and water quality data before, during and after energy development.
Since regulatory agencies are struggling with tighter budgets, the energy industry, regulators and landowners will need to work together and create incentives to gather that data, she said.
“I think that can be a really great next step,” she said.