Three Days in the Alaska Bush #BroughtToYouByPetroleum

3 DAYSIN THEALASKABUSHI pride myself on being a Colorado mountain woman. Three days in the Alaska wilderness cured me of that notion.

It was perhaps the most relaxing, enjoyable, remote three days of my life.  I took a float plane into otherwise inaccessible Caribou Lodge. They allow a maximum of eight guests, but to my delight, I was just one of three.  Three nights to look forward to what Joe and Bonnie could create entirely off the grid in this wilderness wonderland.

I read (on my carefully-managed battery-powered iPad). I hiked, kayaked, “glassed” for hours and hours for wildlife.  I was rewarded with naps, a caribou siting, gasp-provoking views, and a sense of peace like no other.  I’d hike to the top of Bear Hill and long to be even farther out, more alone.  It was incredible.

And through it all I was incredibly conscious of food, shelter, water, and power.  The joy of my trip was created by my ability to dress warmly, retreat to shelter, enjoy water traveling to pipes from the spring, and the recharging ability of both solar pads and a generator.  My entrance and exit was allowed by an aviation-fuel propelled float plane.

Throughout my life I have flirted with off-the-grid phases inspired by some combination of desire for self-sufficiency, romance for a low impact life, and fear of the zombie apocalypse.   The lessons are always stark.  Fifteen-years of heating with wood required chain saws (fueled by gas) and wood splitters (powered by electric), caused massive particulate pollution, and ultimately led to a string of family respiratory illnesses.  The composting toilet just… well… was gross. And so on and so forth.

I took great comfort when I read Farewell my Subaru, ironically provided by a work colleague who was probably laughing at my travails.  In this great book, the author finds that living remotely and naturally requires an awful lot of resources and the support of a manufacturing-driven village.

Which made me thankful for both my remote Alaska wilderness trip, and the resources which make it possible.  My two guides and other guests shared many interesting conversations about the real tradeoffs of environmental enjoyment and protection.  Without invoking clichés, we covered abundant environmental ground from hunting and trapping, through wildfires and rain, to water and outhouses.  We shared a love for the literal ground we were hiking while discussing the resources required and constraints inherent in a remote and rural lifestyle.

We know that dense urban dwelling provides the smallest environmental footprint.  Ironically, life in the remote Alaska bush is probably more energy intensive than in an urban flat. Certainly my travels to the bush were incredibly costly in terms of fuel and resources expended.

Yet I left more enamored and committed to wilderness and my engagement with it than ever before. I am amazed at how much my solitary, rural retreat was #BroughtToMeByPetroleum. I’m grateful to have both wild solitude and abundant petroleum resources.


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

A Gentlewoman’s Guide To Engaging with Activists


Perhaps the best culmination of my last 5 1/2 years is to share what I’ve learned about engaging with activists, or with anyone really.  But it’s the activists that require the “Gentle” in “Gentlewoman”.

A few weeks ago shared an off-the-record breakfast with one of Fractavia’s most renowned activists. This breakfast reminded me that I’ve learned more than just a truckload of facts about oil and gas development in my COGA tenure. I’ve learned to engage thoughtfully, civilly, and persuasively.

I’m not expecting to score any points from activists with this blog. I’m entirely out of patience with rhetoric, fear mongering, and “solutions” that are completely disconnected from the reality of energy demand and our way of life’s interdependence with oil and gas. The audience I want is the oil and gas worker, supporter, or thoughtful user, who wants to engage in discussions with integrity, patience, and hope.

The First Rule 

The rules of engagement are simple on the surface. In reality, they require self-awareness and more commitment to having a conversation than on being right. I probably don’t need to mention that this can be very challenging. But, you’re banging your head against a concrete wall unless you try something new, so you might as well give these rules a try.

Gentlewoman’s Rule #1: Everyone gets treated like a concerned citizen, even if they look and act like an activist. 

It’s too easy, and frankly lazy, to dismiss people who look or sound like activists as professional nuts. Industry advocates do this a lot and it is not helpful. It alienates an awful lot of people who can, should, and ultimately will join the pragmatic conversation about energy development.

Many, many community members get worked up and scared over what they have heard about oil and gas development in general or fracking in particular. Many of them have no idea what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what’s relevant to their life. So, step one is to respect their fear, and seek to understand it.

Upon encountering that first challenge, whether over a family gathering or keg of beer, take a deep breath. Engage your curiosity and ask yourself, I wonder what is driving their perspective?

Here are some example questions that you might ask your protagonist, to get this conversation started on the right foot:

  • That’s an interesting perspective; can you tell me a little more about it?
  • I have never heard that before, but I have some understanding of the topic. Can you tell me more about where you got your information?
  • It sounds like you are really focused on that issue. What is most concerning to you?
  • I have access to some information, would you like to gain another perspective I have some experience with this topic, would you like to hear about what I’ve learned?

You’ll notice that these are questions, not statements. Which brings us to the second rule.

This Is About to Get Interesting 

Gentlewoman’s Rule #2: You are a student of the conflict.

It’s easy to find ourselves defensive in discussions about oil and gas development because others will often take what they believe to be the higher ground. It’s quite fashionable in many circles to be opposed to fracking, for example, and without much thought, people become accustomed to being in the right, whether they are or not.

Too often, we play right into the villain role by becoming angry, condescending, or spouting facts. It’s important to let go of the good-guy bad-guy paradigm and make a calm study of the conflict.

By putting our attention on the conflict, rather than being right, we allow our curiosity to drive the conversation to the next level. Make yourself a relentless student of understanding people who feel like opponents. What makes them tick? What motivates their thinking, behavior, actions? What will they consider a win?

You will be much more effective advocate for oil and gas development, and, incidentally, a much better conversationalist, if you understand who you are talking to. And there is a distant chance you just might enjoy the exchange.

Getting to the Point 

Gentlewoman’s Rule #3: Let the conflict lie. You cannot win.

The biggest mistake we advocates for energy make, because truly we generally do have scientific facts overwhelmingly on our side, is to lord these facts over others. In fact, THIS IS NOT THE POINT. The engaging conversation is the point. Learning about what people fear, why they are motivated, and how we can engage more effectively is the point.

Humanizing the industry is the point. Building trust is the point. In a discussion about oil and gas, who is the most influential person to your average citizen? Someone they know who works in industry. It’s not because that person will know everything, or have all the facts, it’s because ultimately this is about building trust. And you can’t win trust by spouting facts and winning. You build trust by conversing, and listening, conversing, and listening.

Be the Change, Even Though it’s Cliché 

Gentlewoman’s Rule #4: You’re the face of industry. Be trustworthy. 

Whether you’re an employee, a supporter, or a consumer, it’s important that the conversation about responsible oil and gas development become about people, not faceless opponents. We can be labelled big oil or crazy hippies. These labels are the cop-outs we all use to blame faceless others for conflicts that we don’t want to take responsibility for or take part in. Enough already.

There is not any “they”. Every group is made up of people. If we aren’t going to cede the most important conversations happening about energy to all the nutty extremists, it comes down to each of us sucking it up and participating in a meaningful way.

Yes, I know you want to run to the bathroom when that awkward conversation begins, but you can’t. Each of us is the face of oil and gas, because each of our lives is entirely interdependent on the resource. So engage with grace, patience, and compassion. And I’ll join you. Even though I’m leaving COGA, I’m not leaving the conversation.

Can We Skip The Brain Damage?


No one knows whether the fracking wars in Colorado will resolve themselves in months or years. And we don’t know how far the political pendulum will swing toward restricting or banning development before moderating.

Here’s what we do know: at some point, as a state, we will settle on embracing oil and gas development because we demand the product. Constantly. Certainly. At an affordable price. In every aspect of our lives.

I am a passionate centrist. In this blog, that means calling a spade a spade. How much brain damage must we endure before we reach the obvious conclusion?

Dropping the Villain

It may be fashionable in your circle to vilify and dismiss participants in the fracking discussion; however, the only villains worth ignoring are the drill-baby-drill and ban-fracking extremists. The rest: oil and gas employees, concerned citizens, environmentalists and the many combinations and variations of those three, are worth engaging.

Here’s the deal: we all have more in common than not on energy issues. Choose any two people, and my guess is we share at least five out of these six:

  • We use oil and gas products everyday (for transportation, home heating, cooking)
  • We use oil and gas by-products everyday (synthetic fabrics, plastics, electronics)
  • We are price sensitive to oil and gas products and by-products, or at least care about affordability for our less-affluent neighbors.
  • We love Colorado and want to protect its air, water, and scenery.
  • We are committed to the protection of our families and communities including health and safety and quality of life.
Fundamentally, we are all energy consumers and some of us are also energy producers. Villains? Not so much. By focusing on all that we have in common, we can engage our listening and empathy skills to discuss the items on which we disagree.
The Political Pendulum

Suppose that Colorado communities, or voters across the state, decide to make production of oil and gas increasingly difficult, or even ban it all together, then what? I recently met with a delegate from Mexico who was here to study our oil and gas business and regulatory structure as Mexico prepares for their own private-sector investment and the many challenges and benefits that follow. We discussed the state regulatory structure, the roles of local government, the 150-year history of development in the state, the jobs, the tax base, and the possibility of state-wide initiatives.

Initially, he was dismissive of the risks of a statewide ballot initiative. We discussed at length the real risks to investment and development in Colorado. He stated, Surely Coloradans would not risk all this?!

It’s interesting how much we take for granted this cornerstone of life as we know it and the myriad energy, economic, and quality of life benefits of having oil and gas development in our state. It made me ponder – how far will we have to go, to appreciate the blessings of this resource?

I hope not far. But one thing is certain: hindering Colorado oil and gas development will raise awareness of how truly fundamental it is to every aspect of our life. Small changes in just the price of gasoline for cars or natural gas for home heating have huge ramifications on pocket books throughout our communities. And over $1.6B in annual public revenues have far reaching implications for coffers across the state, with more than $500M going to education alone each year.

I’d like to suggest we skip the brain damage of a wakeup call, and instead focus our attention on the conversations that aren’t so sexy, but allow us to enjoy the petroleum-based life that we all lead. Let’s focus on discussions of HOW to produce oil and gas, not IF.

Approach is EVERYTHING

Over the last month I’ve been doing a lot of speaking on Zenergy and deescalating the fracking wars. The warm and enthusiastic response is heartening. Time and again, the question is, how?

So once you’ve come out of the oil-and-gas closet as either an employee or supporter, how can you engage if you don’t have all the answers?

Well take heart! It’s often frustrating that the debate about fracking is dominated by emotion, but because it is dominated by emotion, the objective of Zenergy isn’t to have all the answers, it is to engage in a positive, respectful, and compelling way. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to be another person who cares about your family, your community, and our beautiful state of Colorado – then you can be a part of deescalating the fracking wars simply by having a conversation.

Approach is Everything

If you overhear a conversation about fracking at the water cooler, the gym, or a BBQ, I don’t blame you for wanting to run the other way. Many such conversations now have the righteous indignation and strong opinions rampant in religious or political discussion. But running the other way leaves the stage to the extremes in this conversation about energy, and so the rest of us simply must engage.

In my community talks about how to contribute to conversations about fracking in a meaningful way, I get the most questions about tone. How do we talk about this in the face of so many strong opinions and contradictory information? Here are a few steps I recommend:

Bring intellectual curiosity: Your job isn’t to convince anyone of anything, or have all the answers. Be curious: How did they arrive at their opinion? Where do they get their information? That might be as far as you get, but it will allow you to make a connection without creating more friction.

Check your own reaction:  Fracking has gotten so heated that many of us tense up at the mere mention of its name, in the same way we do if the topic is global warming! (I just did that this morning at my gym and almost missed an awesome conversation with someone who sells solar panels to the oil and gas industry.) Notice your own discomfort and take a deep breath.  The only way we can engage in a meaningful way is if we don’t contribute to the escalation.

Ask before you advise: It’s always helpful to ask: Are you interested in another opinion or more information? If the person isn’t, resume intellectual curiosity and save your breath! If they are interested, then you’ve created a conversation rather than a debate.

Converse, don’t debate: Once you are engaged in the conversation, resist the temptation to be right. Hold onto your curiosity about how someone arrives at such opinions and assess what kind of information might be credible or helpful to them.

Acknowledge the emotion: The fracking wars are driven primarily by concern over health and safety. We all want what’s best for our families and our communities, and creating this connection with our neighbors goes a long way to interesting and productive conversations. It’s critical that we make this common connection and acknowledge our common ground.  Then we can assess what the concerns are and what kind of information might be relevant in addressing those shared concerns.

Zen baby steps: The fracking wars didn’t evolve in a day and won’t be healed in one either. Take your time. Information shared is information gained. We are in this for the long haul.

Deescalating the Fracking Wars


When your congressman takes out a full page ad against you in your hometown newspaper, it’s safe to say that things have gotten out of hand. (It was the letter shown in this blog.) As with most New Year’s Resolutions, this one is getting to a late start. I’m devoting my writing and speaking of 2014 to Zenergy.

Zenergy? Hey, at least you read it here first.
noun: zenergy

1. the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity attainable through contemplation, self-awareness, and meditation

2. appreciation for the power derived from the utilization of physical or chemical resources, esp. to provide light and heat or to work machines

3. a person’s calm and focused physical and mental powers, typically as applied to a particular task or activity

So that’s just the definition of energy with some calming stuff in there. And that’s exactly what I propose here. Together we take 2014 and we disarm the fracking wars through calm, thoughtful, honest engagement.

Not too long ago I avoided all references to war and use of war metaphors in my education and engagement work on oil and gas, but now I think it could be helpful to call a bayonet a bayonet. The simple truth of the matter is that we all use energy. We need energy. And whatever your vision for our energy future may include, at this moment, our real lives include a lot of petroleum.

The fracking wars have gotten completely out of control and totally unproductive for everyone except the extremes. Most people I talk to want more information, but they want it presented in an unbiased way, from a reliable source. The fracking wars are about sound bites, scare tactics, and either-or framing of the issues. Both sides engage in this and I equally reject Ban Fracking and Drill Baby Drill.

I think it’s a good practice to avoid generalizations of the parties involved in the fracking wars and to ignore conspiracy theories on both sides. However, it is useful to use this litmus test to identify who is part of the fracking wars and who will be part of a meaningful conversation about responsible energy development that can move us forward: are they more wedded to the fight than the solution? Are you more wedded to the fight than to finding resolution?

It’s hard to admit, but it is easy to fall into the trap of an us-vs-them, high stakes framing of the oil and gas conversation. This 2014 blog is about identifying, noticing, and avoiding those traps so that collectively we can be part of the solution.

A lot is at stake for all of us. Because access to energy is the building block for quality of life and basic prosperity, the fracking wars affect us all. And this blog is just step 1, and it’s a conversation. Send me your ideas, your guest blog on how we can all participate in changing the fracking wars to energy dialogue.

Poetry Help Us


I was helping in my son’s classroom on the day they learned haiku. I aspire to admire poetry, but usually I prefer a good novel.

Explaining poetry to kids who on a a daily basis are chastised into writing complete sentences was a joy.

“Where does the period go? You don’t need punctuation?!” You can imagine the delight.

It occurs to me that the conversation about oil and gas development could benefit from some communication via haiku.

Five syllables stop

Shrieking less listening more

Space for empathy

You don’t have to be a genius to write lines with 5-7-5 syllables. But you do have to stop shouting and boil down your thoughts into sentiments.

Can you imagine

Shouting loudly in haiku

Would you laugh or cry

And isn’t it funny how you must count the 5-7-5 syllables on your fingers? Perhaps hoping to patch the author in error. Or joining physically in the joy of simple phrasing.

Let us simplify

Energy conversation

Soft thoughtful haiku

The Hermit Crab and the Antique Film


“Mom!  A huge one! Moooommmm! The biggest one yet!”

We gathered around with our head lamps and flashlights to see a hermit crab no less than three times the size of all of the others. Each spotlight of light from our head lamps was seething with little hermit crabs and, if you stood still more than a few moments, one would crawl on your feet.

“What is that?!”

Hermit crabs grab other creatures’ shells to live in. As they grow, they discard their cramped quarters for new, larger upgrades. On this night walk, we’d seen hundreds of quarter-size crabs in a rainbow of shells. This giant-among-crabs had found a black, cylindrical film canister. You know, the kind we had dozens of before digital pictures.

Film canisters are an ancient relic of the olden days to my boys, so its presence heightened the mystery of the giant crab. “Maybe they were shooting an old-fashioned film out at sea and accidentally dropped the canister!” the oldest suggested hopefully, enhanced surely with visions of sea dragons and Scooby doo ghosts.

“I feel bad that it’s living in garbage,” my youngest chimed in. “Hey! He’s not a hermit grab, he’s the Garbage Crab!” This comment sparked a lively debate about The Anthropocene, but in more elementary school jargon, colored with a few passionate potty words.

Was this particular piece of garbage on a night time beach a curse of human development, or an inventive adaption of nature to our co-existence? Clearly there were no other such large condos available in this environment. Thus the crab was alive long after he otherwise would have been. The petroleum-based plastic canister will last decades, serving its crabby inhabitant well, as I’m sure it will its next tenant.

As my children debated, I contemplated that truly I am torn. I am a lover of natural, unspoiled environments. But we are here. Lots of us. And this crab had an otherwise-unavailable home. I picked up a couple extra pieces of garbage to ease my discomfort with The Way Things Are.

I can tell you where my kids landed: “It doesn’t matter if we think it’s garbage, it’s not our home. It only matters what the crab thinks, and he likes it.”

And I’ll keep picking up the garbage.