Big oil in small schools

How the oil and gas industry has gotten into Boulder County schools and student groups

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In the last year, various members of the oil and gas industry have visited the students of a Boulder high school environmental group. School officials invited those industry folks most of the time, but some questions have since arisen.

Who invited the oil and gas representatives? Why are they allowed to speak to students without parents around? Is there any context in which industry members can provide an educational benefit to students?

Consider New Vista High School in Boulder as a trial case. In the last year, they’ve had representatives from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), oil and gas engineering students, fracking geologists and more speak with members of the student group Earth Task Force.

The group is supervised by Madeline Bachner, who is not a teacher at the school, but a contracted employee from the Cottonwood Institute — a nonprofit that helps students in underserved schools develop environmental groups and initiatives. Bachner is not the only contracted employee in the district, which serves many smaller schools like the 350-student New Vista.

On Sept. 10, a research student from Colorado State University came in to speak to the Earth Task Force. Asma Hanif came to share with students a new program she helped develop with Ken Carlson called Colorado Water Watch, which “intends to watch for any contamination, especially due to oil and gas operations in the Denver Julesburg basin.”

Hanif ’s LinkedIn biography says her current role as research assistant at the school includes tasks like “designing static and real-time optimization tools for oil and gas industry clients,” and developing technology that provides “real-time data [that] would help the industry in risk management.”

Colorado State, for those who missed it, also recently announced the creation of the Center for the New Energy Economy, a research facility headed by former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and many former industry people.

Hanif ’s scheduled appearance caused a stir amongst some parents who thought she was a representative of the COGCC. That wasn’t quite true. But she was recommended by the director of the COGCC, Matt Lepore.

“[Hanif and researchers] were putting up a website and they were looking for people to review the website — to sort of beta test the website. I suggested they could have the students at New Vista do that as a way to engage those students,” says Lepore.

Lepore says New Vista reached out to him to speak to the group but, in this case, he recommended that the school gets in touch with Hanif.

The COGCC was also present during a panel discussion at New Vista in March, when two people from the agency were invited to participate in the discussion. Those two people were community liaisons, Lepore says, and his department will often comply with requests from schools and other community institutions to speak.

“The outreach effort is active,” Lepore says. “Most of it occurs in response to requests for us to speak on various topics. We just want people to be informed on what COGCC’s role and mission are and what we are responsible for.”

That panel also included an oil and gas geology consultant, an engineer and an oil and gas specialist from Boulder County. The Cottonwood Institute later wrote on its website about the event: “[Students] especially appreciated being given the opportunity to form their own opinions about such a controversial and important environmental issue.”

The school district has recently revised regulations on deciding who is allowed into schools to speak directly to students. Policies were revised after an abstinence-only speaker “inadvertently” sent students to a website related to her church for more information, according to Briggs Gamblin, director of communications and legislative policy with the Boulder Valley School District.

“That created a stir, so we had to back up and re-look at the procedures and meet with the people again and explain that we couldn’t do that,” says Gamblin. “We found some things that had not been updated in a couple years.”

Gamblin says the program Hanif and Colorado State is running was meant to “be a monitor on oil and gas operations” and so the student-led Earth Task Force would likely be amenable to her message and insight. Gamblin said the guidelines for accepting speakers are different for each curricular area and based on the capabilities of clubs and supervisors.

“The bottom line is if someone wants to speak to a class and the teacher takes that request to the principal and if the principal is all right with that, then the person [is] pre-approved,” says Gamblin. “It’s not really a policy, it’s more a procedure.”

Gamblin added that the Earth Task Force at New Vista is “unique” in the county and so they are more likely to encounter oil and gas representatives from private and governmental sectors than other schools and clubs in the district.

Outside of inviting industry members to speak and to participate on panels, some oil and gas companies have found proactive ways to access schools in Colorado.

For instance, Encana, a major oil and gas producer in the state, has worked with high schools across Colorado, says Wendy Wiedenbeck, Encana senior community relations advisor.

“We have a lot of great relationships with high schools across the state,” says Wiedenbeck. “We engage with them on different levels. We wouldn’t come in with a program at a local school and talk about the work we do unless we were invited in. And make no mistake we have been — we’ve been asked to participate in some school initiatives where maybe they wanted to get both sides of the issue.”

Wiedenbeck says the majority of Encana’s interaction with high school students comes via financial awards to students.

“If we interact with a high school it’s because a student has received a scholarship,” Wiedenbeck says. “We work through the student counselors for schools that are within a district where we have active operations. Those counselors and students would work together to complete the application.”

When a student is awarded a scholarship, Encana representatives will visit the student at his or her high school during a public event.

“We will go to their high school awards ceremony and present them with the scholarship along with all the other scholarships that they get. For instance when we have a recipient from let’s say Erie or Mead high school, someone on the team will find out when is their award ceremony and we go there,” says Wiedenbeck.

Encana is not the only local oil and gas company that engages Colorado high school students via scholarships. Anadarko provides scholarships to students who pursue geophysics majors and Noble Energy provides scholarships to children of employees.

Oil and gas education is also in many students’ textbooks. Hydraulic fracturing-specific education is part of the curriculum for many Colorado high schools as part of the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED). The program was started more than 35 years ago but now includes hands-on education in schools about solar and wind power as well as “oil and gas exploration in shale.”

Wiedenbeck says Encana will supplement a school’s NEED curriculum by holding workshops for teachers or attending educational functions put on by the school district.

There’s also a direct financial connection between Colorado schools and the oil and gas industry. Last year, Weld County School District 6 leased its land to Synergy Resources for about $140,000, enabling it to frack for gas underneath the district’s schools.