Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Former DU prof keeps panel on gas drilling cool

Getting environmentalists and natural gas drillers to tone down their conflicts and talk out their differences took a big step July 8, and a former DU law professor Howard Boigon was at the heart of the peacemaking.

The venture came in a showdown panel discussion between environmentalists and drillers at the annual convention of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) in Denver.

“You need to recognize and address impacts,” asserted environmentalist Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. “Focus drilling in areas [where the impact is least].”

To do otherwise is to invite a fight.

“The gas is where the gas is,” countered Paul Matheny, Rockies region vice president of Questar Exploration and Production Co.

An environmental attorney in the audience challenged natural gas representatives to name one place too sacred to drill.

Industry executive Jay Still of Pioneer Natural Resources turned the challenge on its head. How do you decide what is so special you have to leave it alone, he asked, when there’s nothing that isn’t special to someone? Even solar panels in the Mojave Desert have sparked protest, he said.

Stepping into the fray was Boigon, the panel’s moderator and a partner of the Denver law firm of Hogan & Hartson.

“There are tradeoffs,” he said, reminding panelists that virtually every federal oil and gas lease is challenged by some individual or group. “It’s a balance.”

Which prompted Michael Ming of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America to point out that the oil and gas industry faces opponents whose view is Bananas: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone. “That doesn’t work if you need energy,” he said.

Boigon kept the peace in the robust exchange, a mission he honed as an industry attorney and in 1996, as natural resources practitioner in residence at DU’s Sturm College of Law.

“I took my students out to a drilling rig,” he said in an interview. “Most of the students were environmental students. The whole idea of resource development wasn’t their idea of what a natural resources lawyer did.”

But the course exposed DU students to information on how the oil and gas industry works or is constrained. “There isn’t enough of that,” he said.

Boigon said the overarching theme of this year’s COGA conference was finding a way for the oil and gas industry to partner with environmentalists “to make resource development more community friendly, more understandable, less scary.”

Colorado-based producers are sitting on huge deposits of natural gas in the Rocky Mountains and its development would benefit from greater discussion on the underlying issues.

“DU law school could play a very significant role,” he said. “The University is particularly well situated to lead that effort.”

Breaking down barriers is the key, Boigon noted.

“Some of it is an attitude on both sides, a lot of mistrust. Some is a lack of communication, some an honest different of opinion. But it’s the kind of thing where more dialogue is better than less,” Boigon said.

“There’s a wealth of talent and experience out there in DU law school alums who already are significant players in this area, but who maybe can be more engaged at DU to build a collaborative program.”

It might have to be soon. The drive to develop renewable energy is doubling the debate since renewable projects raise similar access and impact issues as do natural gas wells. The footprint for a wind farm, for example, is 80 square miles and the towers are 400 feet, the size of the Qwest building in Denver, says industry attorney Andy Spielman. Then, too, the cost of connecting wind-generated electricity to the power grid is about $1 million per mile.

“Renewables permitting is going to take a lot of ground for siting and for transmission,” said Fred Julander (MBA ’84), former COGA president. “It’s going to upset biodiversity and the goals of the conservation community more than natural gas projects. When renewables are in the game too, it’s going to be a much more realistic evaluation.”

If the sides can talk and not shout, that is. One who’s already talking is Gov. Bill Ritter, the conference’s keynote speaker July 9.

“We can’t meet Colorado’s future energy needs without producing more Colorado natural gas,” Ritter said. “It’s not a bridge fuel. It’s not a transition fuel. It is a mission —critical fuel.

“It is a permanent part of the new energy economy.”

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