doug henderson

Doug Henderson of 350 Fort Collins wrote this piece for the Coloradan.

As the Colorado Oil & Gas Task Force draws toward conclusion, I want to share a perspective on this policy process with my fellow Coloradans.

I attended the task force meeting in Greeley. I listened to hours of articulate presentations and civil exchanges among well-spoken experts, government officials, task force members and citizens.

However, something was fundamentally amiss: My impression was of watching a tragic comedy, as scripted as reality TV, but conducted as political theater on a public stage.

The central theme was the “tragedy of the commons:” a predicament arising when the actions of many individuals — each responding to incentives at their level — cumulatively result in broad-scale failure and disaster, a debacle at the community level. The tragedy of the commons is well known in a wide array of situations, as diverse as ecology, banking and warfare, for which people have developed management frameworks intended to prevent it.

However, oil and gas development proceeds in near-complete disregard of this tragedy, as tens of thousands of fracking operations proceed apace, each generating only (so it is claimed by the oil and gas industry) minor environmental and human impact. Yet the cumulative result will be broad-scale damage to our “commons” — our environment and public health — through a plethora of toxic sites and spills, emissions that damage air quality and contribute to climate change, pollution of ground and surface water, and as-yet-unknown damages to human health and ecosystems.

The comedy was that of a Gary Larson cartoon, in which well-dressed dinosaurs discuss the path on which they are proceeding while ignoring warnings about where that path is leading, the fate of which we know from hindsight. The Oil & Gas Task Force is akin to a “discussion among dinosaurs,” and this myopic discussion does not bode well for our future. It is hopeful to think that we can forge a future different than the Pleistocene dinosaurs, but to avoid becoming Anthropocene dinosaurs, we need to turn rapidly away from fossil fuels — the main driver of climate change — and focus our immense human capacities on innovating and investing toward a liveable planet.

A supreme dinosaur moment was when the mayor of Greeley — standing directly in front of local residents who had told of grievous problems from gas wells and fracking ruining their lives and damaging their homes, neighborhoods and schools – proceeded to say how wonderful the oil & gas industry is, and his only request was for shrubs to be planted around O&G facilities in town. In other countries such behavior by a public official is considered deeply wrong, a signal of flagrant corruption, but in Colorado it seems to be “business as usual” with oil & gas development. No one on the task force blinked an eye.

The task force held its final public meeting this week. As with any tragic comedy, this theater has been good for a laugh, a cry, or both.

But it does not bode well for Colorado’s future as a healthy, liveable place. For those who prefer a different future and a better fate, it is time to say to the dinosaurs and to the oil and gas industry: “Enough — and no more — we want to go a different direction!!”

Douglas Henderson lives in Fort Collins.