How Tisha Schuller went from environmental activist to industry champion
In business, as in politics and romance, candor can be a liability rather than an asset. Tisha Schuller discovered just how explosive her own words could be at an energy conference in Denver two years ago, when a few comments about the industry's most inflammatory critics started a firestorm of their own.
The president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Schuller had been invited as the keynote speaker for a gathering of executives whose companies are engaged in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — the widespread drilling practice of pumping vast amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals into tight shale formations to extract oil and gas. Schuller sized up the crowd, which was smaller than she'd expected, and decided to speak frankly about the industry's failure to address public concerns about fracking.
Gasland, the strident anti-fracking documentary by Josh Fox, had "really changed the conversation," Schuller said, stirring up fears across the country about the potential for the fracking process to contaminate groundwater. COGA had posted a lengthy debunking of Gasland on its website, including a rebuttal of the film's most startling scene, which showed a Fort Lupton homeowner setting his methane-laced tap water on fire.
"The methane in that well was naturally occurring," Schuller explained. "People have been lighting their water on fire in that area for a hundred years."
COGA had been trying to educate citizens about fracking by citing studies — some sponsored by the industry, some not — that indicated the process was safe and responsible. But "it's ineffective to respond to emotion with science," she suggested, and the industry had to do more to allay fears in impacted communities about perceived health threats. It was no longer acceptable or productive, she maintained, to dismiss the opposition as a bunch of environmental "nuts."
"These 'nuts' make up about 90 percent of our population," she said, "so we really can't call them nuts anymore. They're the mainstream."
Unknown to Schuller, a blogger for the watchdog website NaturalGasWatch.com was in the room, taking notes. The site soon ran its own take on her talk, titled "Shale Gas Industry Insider: We Are Losing the Messaging War on Fracking." And as fragments of her remarks began to drift across cyberspace, completely unmoored from context, the meaning became increasingly distorted. FRACKING INDUSTRY EXECUTIVE SAYS 90% OF AMERICANS ARE "NUTS," blared a progressive newspaper in Wisconsin. Soon there was a fake Facebook page ridiculing her, and all sorts of sniping about out-of-touch one-percenters and sleazy energy spin doctors who'd borrowed tobacco executives' tactics for denying the dangers of their product.
Schuller was aghast. "That was one of my best talks ever," she says. "What I said was, 'We're doing a lot of things wrong. You can't keep calling people who disagree with the industry nuts.' But they took everything I said and put it in the worst possible light. I had to go to bed for two days, I was so devastated."
For Schuller, the experience was a crucial lesson in the polarized politics of fossil fuels. "It was the first time my message got turned on me, but that's just a hazard of the job," she says. "There are people out there who are more invested in the conflict than [in] dialogue. I hadn't come to terms with that yet."
The situation had its ironies; for much of her life, Schuller had considered herself one of the "nuts" her industry was so eager to marginalize. She'd been an environmental activist in college and an environmental consultant to industry for years before being lured to what she mockingly refers to as "the dark side," running the most powerful energy trade organization in the state. Part of her mission, as she sees it, is to foster dialogue with fracking opponents, hammer out compromises with regulators and lawmakers — and drag her own membership from its combative perch into active "engagement" with citizens at a local level, talking about such formerly taboo subjects as climate change and the ingredients in fracking brew.
"I see myself as a translator, a student of different tribes," Schuller says. "Finding common ground is seen as a betrayal to your cause. But our approach to regulation is not to stand and fight, but to engage, and to engage politically in a nonpartisan way. My life is uncomfortable every day, but it's not an echo chamber."
In many ways, Schuller is a walking – or, given her general energy level, running —contradiction. She's a registered Democrat and proclaimed liberal who makes her home in a modest cabin west of Boulder and talks about pursuing a "small-footprint life." Yet she's also the face of an industry that has spent nearly $5 million lobbying Colorado officials over the past four years and is changing the state's landscape, literally and economically, from Rifle to Greeley, from Fort Collins to Durango.
Her supporters say she's singularly effective in her work. "So much in energy development today is people talking at one another," says Scott Moore, an Anadarko Petroleum vice president and former chair of COGA's executive board who's worked closely with Schuller. "Tisha is really skilled at elevating the quality of the discourse. She can walk into a contentious community meeting, and when she leaves, a whole bunch of people want to have coffee with her."
Over nearly four years of Schuller's leadership, COGA has forged a number of significant victories and alliances in the regulatory and political arenas. Despite routine clashes with regulators, the industry has gotten much of what it wanted out of the rule-making rituals of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC. And, after an adversarial relationship with Governor Bill Ritter, the group has had generally smooth sailing with his successor, John Hickenlooper; Hick has even appeared in COGA-sponsored public-service announcements, cooing assurances about the integrity of Colorado's groundwater and touting the frack-fluid disclosure requirements his administration hammered out with the industry as "the toughest and fairest" in the nation.
"The political and regulatory climate in Colorado is particularly challenging," Moore notes. "It requires a high level of engagement, and that's where Tish has really helped COGA to shine. She has a good working relationship with the governor's team; we understand each other's perceptions well."
At the same time, though, the march of drill rigs closer to residential areas across the Front Range has triggered considerable resistance at a grassroots level, with scores of communities considering new rules of their own, a moratorium on drilling, or more drastic measures. COGA is now involved in two lawsuits against the City of Longmont over its outright ban on fracking, and the industry's lobbyists were kept exceptionally busy at the Statehouse this past session, defeating more than a dozen bills that sought tighter monitoring or stiffer penalties for fracking operations — a blitzkrieg that sounds a lot more like a "stand and fight" strategy than the kind of collaborative decision-making Schuller espouses.
"It's an oversimplification to say we won," she says of the legislative debacle. "It's not a win if there are ten terrible oil-and-gas bills out there that portray the industry as a bunch of big corporations disconnected from Colorado. We want to be respected and humanized and treated fairly."
Environmental leaders who've worked with Schuller on regulatory issues say they don't doubt that her concerns about climate change and responsible energy development are genuine. They question, though, whether she has the ability to take COGA, a consortium of more than 200 large and small oil-and-gas companies, in a new direction — or if she's merely provided the "old" COGA with a more appealing front.
"She's earnest, and she does care about issues other than the bottom line of the oil-and-gas industry," says Dan Grossman, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "But I think she's found herself struggling with an industry that's not as enthusiastic about environmental progress as she is."
It may seem a bit of a leap from joining campus "die-ins" protesting the Gulf War, with all their indignant slogans about trading blood for oil, to promoting the fossil-fuel industry as "part of the solution" to climate change. But Schuller sees her own shift in thinking as less of a whirlwind conversion than a gradual evolution, a process of making key personal, career and ethical connections that brought her to the opposite side of the political divide — the side she used to rage against twenty years ago.
"One of the shocks of taking this job," she says, "was realizing how sheltered I had been in the liberal world. Now I live and breathe conservative politics, and I see that I didn't have a clue."
Born in Florida, raised in Tucson, Schuller had little exposure to politics of any kind until she was awarded a scholarship to Stanford University. "I just became a full-fledged hippie there," she says. She joined a co-op, went to Earth Day rallies and anti-war protests, studied geology and environmental sciences and planned on becoming some kind of green warrior after graduation.
But paying jobs for environmental activists were no more abundant in the early 1990s than they are today. Brandishing her Stanford degree, Schuller sought work across the spectrum — from activism to regulation to consulting to working directly in industry — and saw her applications rejected repeatedly. Even the Environmental Protection Agency turned her down. She taught preschool for a year, then landed a position as an administrative assistant at a consulting firm that involved a one-hour commute.
With persistence, she eventually moved into field work for clients, mostly in the oil-and-gas industry: cleanup and remediation of drill sites, permitting processes for exploration and pipelines, environmental education for staff. In 1996 the company asked her to open an office in Colorado, a state she knew from family visits.
"I was 26, a girl with a dog and a pickup truck," she recalls. "They said, 'You want to move to Colorado?' And I said, 'Amen.'"
Schuller set up shop in Boulder and soon joined with a friend to purchase a cabin in the hills west of town that dates back to 1873. She still lives there today with her geologist husband and their two sons, ages six and ten. But for several years, she spent a good deal of time on the road — and it was during those travels, she says, that she began to question her own assumptions about the oil-and-gas business.
"I would show up in Alabama, with fifteen field guys sitting in a classroom waiting for my two-hour introduction to environmentalism," she says. "I had to figure out a way to do it so they would listen, and that required that I get to know them and understand them. I realized that these are all people who care about their families, their communities, their air and water. I'm not going to come in and tell them how to be an environmentalist. What I had to do was connect to their connections."
To Schuller, the discovery that her clients had concerns beyond simply maximizing profits was a turning point of sorts. "The fact is, we all care about the environment and we all use energy," she says. "The differences are in how we prioritize: Since we're using it, what's the best way to get it? How much are we willing to pay for it? How much are we willing to disenfranchise the poor by raising prices on it?"
An advocate of wind power in her youth, Schuller remembers doing some discouraging calculations about the current technology after seeing wind farms in action in northeastern Colorado. "I'm still a renewable supporter; I'm just not anti-oil and gas," she explains. "The footprint, the portability, the efficiencies — these are all important things. The footprint of most forms of energy is tremendous compared to natural gas. I'm also a supporter of nuclear."
Step by step, Schuller began to move to a more pragmatic position regarding the industry that provided her livelihood; she was decidedly to the right of the zero-carbon crowd, but left of the drill-baby-drillers who wanted rigs in national parks. She became a principal in Tetra Tech, a national engineering and environmental consulting firm, managing six offices. She was also a proponent of natural gas as an essential element of the "new energy economy." That caught the attention of some remediation members, who encouraged her to apply for the CEO position. Schuller did so, hoping to make new business contacts, but without any serious expectation of getting the job.
"I thought, 'They'll never take a liberal like me from Boulder,'" she remembers. "It took almost five months. I probably went through twenty or more interviews. Ultimately, I guess my business experience prevailed."
"Most trade-association executives come directly from industry," says Anadarko's Moore. "We hired her to provide a broader perspective and reach out to constituencies we wouldn't normally reach out to."
Since signing on at COGA, Schuller has indeed made her presence felt in places you wouldn't expect to find a fracking advocate. She meets regularly and off the record with individual environmental leaders for coffee, a practice she's continued even as the fracking debate has become more heated. "We do it without a specific agenda and without entourages," she says. "My objective is to build a long-term rapport while recognizing the realities of the political climate we're in."
COGA continues to churn out educational materials about fracking safeguards, but Schuller has also pushed for a stronger industry presence at city council meetings, town halls and other local forums, where many of the current battles over fracking are at their most feverish. She now has a full-time community-relations advisor and devotes many hours of her own time to local outreach.
"We have a fundamentally different approach than the rest of the oil-and-gas industry," Schuller says. "You'll hear people say, 'We have to get the science out.' But science is not interesting when you're motivated by concern for your children's health. We need to acknowledge the emotional nature of the conversation. It takes time to build trust with people so they feel comfortable with this kind of operation in their community."
She points out that while twenty Colorado towns or counties have wrestled with proposals for new rules on fracking in recent months, almost all of them — Longmont being the most glaring exception — have reached a resolution that may impose some restrictions but no fracking ban. "While there's still some really high-octane conflicts, there's a lot that's happened through a year's worth of dialogue," Schuller says. "We've done town halls, open houses — and rules have been put in place, moratoria lifted, agreements reached with the state. I don't think we're by any means close to done."
Local anxieties about fracking have attracted not only the ministrations of COGA, but a fair amount of blustering from Governor Hickenlooper, who keeps reminding city and county officials that it's primarily the state's job to regulate oil-and-gas development. At a state level, COGA has fared well under Schuller. She cites the fracking-fluid disclosure process that Hickenlooper unveiled late in 2011, hailed as the most rigorous in the country and produced after many hours of consultation with industry and environmental stakeholders, as one of her proudest moments — along with COGA's development of the first statewide voluntary groundwater monitoring program, in which more than 90 percent of all operators participated.
That voluntary system was replaced earlier this year by tougher state rules requiring groundwater sampling before and after drilling — but even that measure, which COGA complained about, is viewed by many environmentalists as too weak to be effective. It provides, for example, a lesser degree of monitoring in what's known as the Greater Wattenberg Area, the huge gas field at the center of the drilling boom in northeastern Colorado, because drilling operations are so much more densely packed together there. Critics complain that the new rule has set up different monitoring standards in different parts of the same counties and gives companies too much leeway to "cherry-pick" their sampling sources.
To many fracking opponents, COGA's success in the regulatory arena is a sign of a lax system of enforcement by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has a reputation for understaffing — the COGCC currently has only seventeen inspectors, not enough to visit even half of the state's 45,000 wells every year — and for heavily discounting fines for environmental violations. Coloradans may be able to find out more about what's in the fracking fluid than residents in other states, but the industry's rapid expansion across the state has also resulted in hundreds of surface spills of contaminated wastewater and chemicals and declining air quality, even in relatively car-free fracking zones such as Rio Blanco County.
"We've got to do a better job of protecting our water and air," says Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, who's worked with Schuller on state rules such as how far from homes a drill rig must be — a wrangle that resulted in only a slight increase in the minimum distance, from 350 to 500 feet.
"By and large, this is a regime that's more open to dialogue," Maysmith concedes. "Tisha is willing to listen. She's willing to talk. That's a prerequisite, so that's great. But that doesn't get us all the way there."
Jim Walker remembers the COGA board meetings of years ago, when the board was dominated by owner-operators of small exploration companies, whose seat-of-the-pants decisions determined "whether we're going to be eating oatmeal or steak next week." Many of the wildcatters who rode Denver's boom-or-bust roller coaster in the 1980s are long gone, their seats on COGA's board now occupied by middle management of large energy conglomerates — people with grave concerns about public relations and "dialogue" with the community.
Walker, part of a two-man team that comprises Petron Development, has operated stripper wells on Colorado's eastern plains for decades. He believes Schuller has been quite effective — "She's doing what she said she would do," he says — but he also questions the direction the association is heading. There are times when he misses the more confrontational COGA of years ago.
"The old COGA might have been more aggressive about our position, more feisty," he says. "Today's COGA is more, 'Let's educate.' In the case of fracking, I was very upset about the amount of money we've spent trying to educate the masses as to what we're doing and have been doing forever. The opposition doesn't want to hear it; they don't care. The opposition has done a much better job of instilling ridiculous fear into everybody. I have friends who are not in the industry, and they're scared to death."
Schuller stresses her commitment to finding commonsense, common-ground solutions to public concerns. But when a certain segment of the public isn't open to compromise, her organization has demonstrated that it still can be as feisty as ever. Just ask the anti-fracking activists who campaigned for the ban on drilling in Longmont; none of them can recall any Kumbaya sessions with COGA.
"First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you, and you win — that's sort of been my dealings with them," says Sam Schabacker, the regional director of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch. "Tisha Schuller never personally reached out to anyone involved in the Longmont campaign, as far as I know. One of their representatives did contact me, but our organization isn't willing to negotiate to put a poisonous and contaminating activity next to people's homes and schools. We don't believe fracking can be safely regulated."
A year ago, Longmont's city council considered what Schabacker describes as "modest protections" for fracking, but retreated under pressure from the state and a "push poll" released by COGA. When activists managed to put the question of a complete fracking ban on the ballot last fall, oil-and-gas interests spent freely — by Schabacker's calculations, around half a million dollars — urging voters to turn down the measure. After the amendment to the city charter passed by a 60-40 margin, COGA filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, as well as intervening in another lawsuit filed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
"When they lose in a democratic vote, their only recourse is to sue," Schabacker says. "They've been very active in undermining the democratic process, and they've been joined in the intimidation and lawsuits by Governor Hickenlooper."
Schuller says it's unrealistic for citizens of Longmont to expect to be exempted from a form of energy production the state has approved elsewhere. "In the end, it was an easy decision to sue — because if you ban hydraulic fracturing, you're banning oil-and-gas development," she says. "You're saying, 'We're not going to produce this resource here; we're going to require it from somewhere else.' It's important that disconnect not become an accepted practice. And there's the private-property issue; if you're not allowing people to access their mineral rights, I think it's going to be clearly refuted by the courts."
But the ban supporters aren't swayed by the do-your-part argument. "They love to talk about how we all use energy and we have to take responsibility for that energy use," Schabacker says. "That's all well and good, but they're not talking about putting a fracking well close to their homes. Tisha Schuller lives up in the mountains outside of Boulder, an area that's never going to be fracked because there isn't shale under that location. They're not sharing the burden; they're imposing it on the people of Colorado."
Some communities have decided that the burden of fracking is less worrisome than the burden of litigation. Facing the prospect of similar lawsuits, last month officials in Fort Collins overturned its fracking ban, while the Boulder County commissioners voted to let their moratorium expire. But Longmont's battle appears to have inspired activists in Loveland, who recently launched a campaign to put a two-year moratorium on fracking on the November ballot, while a citizens' group in Fort Collins is now seeking a five-year moratorium there.
Citizen concerns about spills, water monitoring, setback distances, adequate inspections and more fueled a wave of legislative efforts this year to tighten fracking regulations. State senator Matt Jones, whose district includes Louisville, Lafayette and a portion of Longmont, says he heard from numerous constituents demanding action.
"These are not people who ever thought they would be in this place," he says. "They don't consider themselves environmentalists. They're people trying to raise their kids, and all of a sudden a rig shows up several hundred yards from their house. They start worrying about their kids' health and their property values. The first guy who called me up in Longmont was a Republican who grew up in western Nebraska. Another was a landscaper who was getting a well drilled 350 feet from his back door. These are middle-class people who are getting shoved into this fight."
Yet most of the bills faced heavy lobbying from COGA and the industry, as well as objections from the COGCC and the Department of Natural Resources — and collapsed in flames or were pruned beyond recognition. A fragment of one of Jones's bills survived, requiring the COGCC to adopt a risk-based strategy that could result in more in-depth inspections, but an effort to dramatically increase the number of inspectors failed. So did a conflict-of-interest bill that would have prevented new members of the commission from being employed by the industry they were supposed to regulate.
So did a bill that would have closed the loophole for water monitoring in the Greater Wattenberg Area. So did an attempt to establish firm minimum and maximum daily fines for violations and end the generous markdown of penalties by the COGCC, which Jones likens to the pricing policy of the Kohl's chain, "where they mark their clothes down by two-thirds and then give you an additional discount."
Given that Democrats now control both houses of the General Assembly, the abject failure of the regulatory reformers on all but the two most innocuous measures may be unprecedented. One state representative says he counted 23 lobbyists, including those from COGA and the Department of Natural Resources, urging lawmakers to vote against the conflict-of-interest bill. Jones says his attempt to increase inspectors also drew a crowd. "There were three lobbyists on one legislator," he says. "It was a swarm."
Schuller suggests that many of the bills were poorly conceived or failed to gather adequate input from industry. "Better outcomes come out of collaboration," she says.
She points out that her membership had agreed in principle to key aspects of the fine bill, including hiking the maximum penalty from $1,000 a day to $15,000, which she regards as a "huge win" for the bill's backers. But sponsors Jones and state representative Mike Foote of Lafayette were adamant about preserving a minimum fine amount, as well: $2,500 a day instead of zero.
"That was the section that was going to change behavior," Foote says. "We've seen that the COGCC hasn't come close to levying maximum fines."
Yet that insistence led to a stalemate, and ultimately to Foote's withdrawing the bill. "They were more interested in the political theater than in having a good outcome," Schuller says. "That's a perfect example of why this session was so disappointing for us."
That's not the way Foote sees it. "Anyone who knows me knows I'm not much into drama," he responds. "I'm a bottom-line kind of guy. I'm into getting things done. But I'm also not going to get a bill passed that doesn't accomplish anything."
Foote takes some solace in the fact that the day his bill died, Hickenlooper issued an executive order directing the COGCC to "re-evaluate its enforcement philosophy" and its approach to fines. "Sometimes progress isn't linear," Foote says. "If the executive order can get us there, I guess that's a good result."
The grassroots concerns about fracking will doubtless bring more bills next year. "Whenever these guys set up rigs outside people's back doors, there's going to be pushback," Jones says. "It's just going to get worse."
When she first accepted the COGA job, Schuller wondered if she might some day be asked to pursue a policy that she found ethically or environmentally unacceptable. If that happened, she told herself, she would simply resign.
That day has never come. Schuller says she's never even considered quitting. Just to make sure she hasn't been co-opted, though, she's developed a sounding board of people outside the industry from whom she seeks advice and input — people like historian Patricia Limerick and Denver Museum of Nature & Science president George Sparks.
Sparks met Schuller at a COGA conference and was impressed by her bridge-building and commitment. "I don't know anyone else who can do what she does," he says. "She's willing to do what's right, even if it puts her at odds with people and causes she grew up with."
Schuller is often accused of being a Pollyanna, but Sparks doesn't consider her optimism about finding solutions to America's energy quandaries to be such a terrible thing. "That's a really important role," he says. "If we can get two sides talking, there's a possibility of finding more commonality than people realize."
For years, Schuller has been extolling the environmental benefits of natural gas and its importance in any discussion of climate change and the future of energy. Wind and solar advocates tend to complain that natural gas isn't as "clean" as the industry claims, but recently released EPA data — cited enthusiastically on Schuller's blog — does indicate that the ongoing conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas in Colorado and across the country is contributing to a significant reduction in carbon emissions.
"Hydraulic fracturing is how we're going to get more natural gas to reduce climate change," Schuller says. "It's important that the oil-and-gas industry be allowed to be part of the solution. A lot of the current dialogue is, 'We have to get off dirty fossil fuels.' It's us versus them — and if you're the 'them,' you don't feel that interested in helping these people solve the problem. But there's no industry investing more in renewables worldwide than the oil-and-gas industry."
It will take all sorts of energy sources, she contends, to meet the growing demand. She hopes in the future to move on to involvement in international efforts to provide access to affordable energy, which she regards as a critical step in addressing global poverty. "If we're going to get ten billion people access to energy, we're going to need the technology," she says.
But for now, she has a job closer to home. She does yoga, meditates and steels herself for public meetings in which she will be confronted by what she describes as "the vocal minority" driving the politics and media coverage of fracking, people who will probably accuse her of being a shill for soulless polluters and a clueless elitist who thinks 90 percent of Americans are nuts.
"I try to start every day with a clean slate," she says. "No grudges, no baggage. I try to listen with curiosity and empathy. If I'm just going to develop this shell of self-righteousness — well, there are a lot of angry people who could do my job."
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