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.

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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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast