When Daniel Kaffine is not summiting Mt. Elbert in Colorado whose peak sits at 14,400 feet, he can be found coaxing Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) to draw “setbacks”—the distances set by state governments that define how close oil and gas operations can be to vulnerable sites such as buildings, homes, schools or waterways.
“We draw setbacks on every single building…we have special data on every single waterway in Colorado,” he says. “We ask questions around how much oil and gas would be accessible in this county under 1000 feet…we plot out the cost curve of what these setbacks are going to be as we increase them.”
An economist by training, Kaffine was recently part of an expert panel of scientists convened by the AAAS Colorado Local Science Engagement Network (CO LSEN) to talk about the future of hydraulic fracturing. The group included scientists and experts like Dr. Christine Wiedinmyer, Associate Director for Science at CIRES, Tom Murphy Director of Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR), Mark Zoback, Professor of Geo Physics at Stanford University, Director of the Natural Gas Initiative, Amy Pickle, who directs the state policy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policies Solutions, and Bruce Barker, Weld County Attorney. Earlier this month, each respective leader shared unique perspectives on hydraulic fracturing. The panel was organized by Matthew Druckenmiller, a research scientist at Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder (CIRES), Mikkela Blanton, special projects director of the Colorado LSEN, and Max Boykoff, a Fellow at CIRES, with support from the AAAS EPI Center, CIRES, and the Institute for Science and Policy.
For Boykoff, LSEN science advocate and Colorado project co-lead, the purpose of such a panel of diverse experts coming together is clear.
“One of the goals of the CO LSEN is to bring science to bear on policymaking so that policies are better-suited to address challenges relating to dimensions of climate change, sustainability, and natural resource management,” he says.
The AAAS group works to invite people, like Kaffine and others, to the table to foster dialogue that is non-partisan and sometimes even challenging of previously held views. Kaffine was more than ready to help support the convening panel with his own research.
With the science, technology and public health issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing unsettled, local communities have to make difficult choices, which the recent AAAS CO LSEN panel also touched on. For example, in November 2018, voters in Colorado had to decide whether to extend setbacks in the state to 2,500 ft for new oil and gas companies. After running a campaign against the measure by arguing for the protection of jobs, the oil and gas industry emerged victorious. However, recently the state regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), through a regulatory instrument, implemented 2000 feet setbacks following a change in directive of the COGCC under SB 19-181. Kaffine describes this decision as contentious for some in Colorado, making it part of the subject of discussion.
He takes a broader view of the economics of setbacks—the kind that is not about profits only but also includes efficiency, health, safety and extraction benefits.
As an economist, Kaffine was drawn to this work, and his engagement with LSEN, because he knows there is a thin body of academic work around setbacks and much to be done to communicate about these regulatory tools.
“A lot of it was this debate about Proposition 112,” he says referring to the Colorado ballot initiative of 2018. “There was public debate and commentary about what the impacts are going to be, and I thought we could do as good a job as anybody of trying to pin down what these costs might be.”
Beyond the oil and gas realm, Kaffine touted the benefits of his research, around renewable energy as well. “As we sort of transition to clean energy, this issue of how big of a setback around wind turbines should you have will be a very similar question to how big a setback should you have around oil wells,” he says.
A lot of the oil and gas plays that are the focus of Kaffine’s research are in the Denver Julesburg Basin. “It is a rich oil and gas area but there are also a lot of people,” he says. “You have this sort of conflict between the desire for extraction and concerns about health and safety impacts of oil and gas fracking operations being located near homes.”
Still, Kaffine stays optimistic that as we learn more about public health considerations and how they vary over distance from things like setbacks, there will be a good grasp of what both the incremental benefits and costs are, which will lead to sound policy decisions that balance those considerations. For the CO LSEN, this is just the beginning of their work with experts like Kaffine as well.
“Bringing Kaffine into the discussion alongside Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioner (COGCC) Julie Murphy and Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker is the first step in satisfying our objectives as CO LSEN, to bring science to bear on policy-making, and to build and foster a new contingent of scientists in Colorado who are engaged in opportunities to bring science into the policy realm,” Blanton says.
There will be other activities to join in on the future as well. The CO LSEN is currently planning for a mid-April legislative event that will serve as an opportunity for scientists and policymakers, including CO general assembly members, to have a conversation about how to improve connectivity and cooperation at the science-policy interface in Colorado on a specific topic area related to climate, environment, or energy.
They encourage AAAS Members to visit their policy engagement hub to learn more, sign up for their newsletter and read Science Notes, which provide relevant content on science-policy-society issues at the local level in Colorado.
Druckenmiller says there will be three focus areas within the Colorado Local Science Engagement network.
“We have selected focus areas to be responsive to really current science-policy issues and to active decision-making arenas, and these priorities are going to be driving the activities of the network, so events like this one we just held on hydraulic fracturing, but also science notes that our network and our network partners will be writing on different topics,” he says. “Some of these notes are brief updates; others are lengthy and more detailed. In addition, we are hoping that these focus areas allow us to bring people together and exchange knowledge, maybe in events like this recent one, but it may also be in workshops that take shape with policy-makers themselves.”