By Courtney King

Western students flex their solar skills

President Brad Baca opens the forum 

Western’s inaugural energy forum “Energy Elevated”— held back on Nov. 8 — opened with president Brad Baca speaking to the role of the university as a convener of difficult conversations that feature varied viewpoints. 

The event, hosted by the School of Business, included participation from the Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering and the Clark Family School of Environment and Sustainability. 

Representing perspectives ranging from environmental sciences to petroleum geology — from those aiming to profit off energy development to anti-capitalist tree-huggers — the forum appeared likely to be contentious from the start.

But any contention remained in the background rather than forefront, as the event lacked sustained student participation throughout the day.

Based on conversations I’d had with students leading up to the event, I had been excited to see whether and how they would express their frustrations. I wondered whether any groups would protest, leave, or otherwise make a scene. 

Students did come and go, but no one openly expressed anger at the ongoing discussions. One could presume that on a typical Wednesday in November, many were simply on their way to or from class. 

I also wondered whether activist fatigue contributed — global events could be occupying student and staff’s attention. With many issues to follow, this could be true, although there has been a noticeable lack of on-campus organizing related to the siege of Gaza by Israel, and the ongoing Palestinian humanitarian crisis. 

Earlier this month, a whopping zero students showed up to a listening and learning session organized by vice president of inclusivity Steven D. Parker earlier this month. 

While it could seem inappropriate to bring up here, this lack of attention to Palestine was perceptible as multiple speakers did not even hint at current events in Gaza, but instead brought up Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a politically safer topic in college campuses.

To folks’ credit, it’s likely some have personal connections to these events and are engaging in activist efforts – just doing so online. Indeed, the energy forum similarly showed that for many, it can be easier to “voice” one’s questions virtually, with attendees submitting questions for panelists via an app.

This digital participation increased the number of participants who could articulate their concerns or support; however, only a portion of these could be directed to presenters during the event. 

Kayla Dolan on having difficult conversations

The implications of this format became clear during the keynote address from Kayla Dolan, director of policy and strategy for Adamantine Energy, an energy consulting company. Dolan spoke about “The Energy Landscape” and focused on one driving question: “How do we come together to have difficult conversations?” 

Her talk was entertaining and encouraging to some, but fell flat to others, featuring a wealth of platitudes that didn’t seem to lead to much action in practice, or very many “difficult conversations.”

In one particular instance, Dolan joked about how she had entered the energy space through her work on Capitol Hill. During a hearing on the Keystone XL Pipeline, she was perceived as an expert on climate issues and asked to inform her senator’s vote despite — in her words — never having heard of the pipeline. 

Presented as a funny anecdote, it was hard not to think of those involved in protests against Keystone XL and other pipelines due to the long-term impact such projects can have on climate change, as well as more localized concerns about health, toxic spills, and other negative impacts to tribal and other local communities.

Such avoidance of responsibility to learn about concerns impacting communities across and country world by someone perceived as an expert by U.S. senators was not a joke to many in attendance, but a shame. 

As the keynote went on, it became clear that Dolan was not as willing to actually address difficult questions as she kept claiming. During the question-and-answer portion, she dodged several tougher inquiries, including: “Should environmental consequences be reflected in natural gas prices?”

Other questions, to her credit, were raised on the app but never posed by the session’s moderator. Despite it being the most upvoted question, the moderator never asked Dolan: “Why develop infrastructure for natural gas in developing countries when we have cleaner technology readily available?” 

Another popular question that was never asked: “In ‘lifting citizens out of poverty,’ how do you guard against white saviorism? Are we using those individuals being lifted as pawns in our U.S. energy game?” 

One final question raised online during the keynote rang true throughout the day but was never meaningfully addressed: “People are dying as a result of the climate crisis. At what point do we stop talking about it and actually treat it like a crisis?”

If a keynote is meant to set the theme of the day, the speaker succeeded in noting the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). The laws poured hundreds of billions into the economy and will contribute to the transformation of the American energy sector for decades in ways that are still becoming clear.

A variety of speakers noted both pieces of legislation as a success (especially the IRA), particularly as theme of bipartisanship was woven throughout the day. 

The “working together” cliche was expressed frequently, echoing themes of Dolan’s keynote, but it was hard to ignore the fact that many tougher questions from environmentalists went largely unanswered.

Sarah Sandberg, Diego Plata, and John Messner on sustainability

The first panel of the day was focused on, “Sustainability in the Energy Transition.” Addressing how she ended up working in the oil and gas industry, Sarah Sandberg, the head of sustainability and energy transition for PDC Energy (an oil and gas firm), noted how she grew up observing the fossil fuel industry’s negative impacts on her hometown of Baton Rouge. 

Gunnison’s Mayor Diego Plata (himself a graduate of the MEM program at Western) represented both his role in local government and full-time position with Stantec, a consulting company that represents companies working in renewable energy as well as oil and gas.

Regarding this role, he referenced the fact that many observers consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards to be inadequate. Nevertheless, his answers spoke to how such standards can hold companies accountable for their actions (or inaction).

Sandberg and Plata, while they avoided speaking negatively about the companies they worked for, both came across as fairly honest. Their perspectives were rounded out by that of John Messner, who works to regulate energy companies as a commissioner for the Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission. 

All three panelists described how companies are voluntarily participating in the move to renewable energies. In doing so, they acknowledged that government subsidies have heavily supported oil and gas companies in the past, tipping the scales in their favor in relation to alternative, renewable forms of energy. However, they also spoke about how the move towards renewables now comes with great economic incentives, which often take the form of tax credits. 

In response to the question: “Can profit be a guiding principle for sustainability?” panelists noted that loans are increasingly linked to sustainability. Environmentalists in the audience might be bothered that the industry is largely doing so for profit. But regardless of motive, it’s happening, and the day’s speakers spoke about the mechanisms and implications for the ongoing energy transition. 

Diego Plata

Luke Ilderto, Annie Beall, and Derrick Watchman on ensuring a just energy transition

Fittingly, the next panel focused on “Ensuring Just Transitions.” Speakers Luke Ilderton (deputy director of Energy Outreach Colorado) and Annie Beall (climate-ready buildings lead with the Colorado Energy Office and a private climate and energy strategy consultant) spoke about the role of Colorado state government offices in affordable energy programs, from subsidies for efficient appliances to assistance paying bills. 

A graduate of Western’s MEM program, Beall noted her experience struggling to pay to heat her apartment, a challenge that would have been even greater as an individual or a family living in a poorly insulated mobile home. 

She spoke to the requisite steps for an energy transition, noting that simply paying for training isn’t enough if it comes at the expense of workdays for small companies, or if it is unaffordable for construction and related workers to live in the areas where their skills could be best utilized. 

Derrick Watchman, president of the consulting company Sagebrush Hill Group, LLC, gave a bit of a different perspective to the same panel as a member of the Navajo Nation. Watchman noted that many tribal communities have lacked decision-making power over their lands at the same time as they lack the funds needed for infrastructure and community development. 

While they want to protect their lands, they also want to finally receive the financial benefits of energy development and must balance environmental and social values with actions that “put food on our tables,” developing critical minerals that can aid in the broader energy transition but may also do harm to the local environment. 

Derrick Watchman

Grappling with utilities — and the consumer’s role in energy

The next afternoon session similarly focused on “Utilities: Delivering Reliable, Accessible, Affordable, Clean Energy,” followed by a presentation from Mike McBride of the Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA). These sessions focused more on the consumer’s role, i.e. the homeowner, with less applicability to those living in rental units, or on-campus.

Watchman’s earlier comments on rare earth minerals provided foreshadowing to the later focus on mining, including a talk on “The Role of Critical Materials in the Energy Revolution.” 

Speaker Roderick G. Eggert, a mineral economics professor at Colorado School of Mines and the deputy director of the Critical Minerals Institute, highlighted the fact that a subset of materials are increasingly vital — essential and often difficult to substitute — as the world pivots toward renewable energies. 

He concluded that due to the amount of demand, recycling can only be a partial solution and mining for new minerals will be necessary. Eggert questioned how we will simultaneously responsibly and sustainably increase domestic production while enhancing collaborations with strategic partners. 

The socioeconomic consequences of increased mining in certain, specific areas of the Global South were noted but unfortunately not described in great detail. Eggert’s mention of domestic mining was significant but was also not adequately contextualized — particularly here in the Gunnison Valley, home of the ongoing Red Lady will-they-won’t-they mining saga.

Some those involved in fighting mining operations have cautioned that the conservation community should not fight against mining in general, but instead push for increased regulations domestically and abroad — as ENVS professor Luke Danielson’s Sustainable Development Strategies Group (SDSG) often does. 

Diving into the Red Lady saga with Jake Jones

The next talk by Jake Jones of the Crested Butte Land Trust focused on the history of the Red Lady (Mt. Emmons), a proposed site of molybdenum mining since the late 1970s — and the driving reason behind the creation of High Country Citizens’ Alliance — now known as High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA).

Since its founding, the organization has fought for nearly fifty years to stave off a series of mining efforts and expanded its scope to other public lands and environmental issues.

The Red Lady story was outlined in journalist Paul Anderson’s book “The Town That Said Hell No!”, released in 2022. 

While not addressed here, the concept of NIMBY-ism could be readily applied to this issue’s history, with attention paid to how to ensure that if mining isn’t conducted here, it is conducted with the consent and participation of local communities and with adequate environmental and social regulations. 

These two mining-focused talks of the day could have similarly benefited with panel discussions with more time for question and answer. Similarly, perspectives like those of retired professor and lawyer Luke Danielson, an expert in mining issues, would have been valuable. President of the aforementioned SDSG, Danielson’s work is largely focused on improving mineral development policies. 

In presentations, he provides the perspective that all sources of energy have negative socioeconomic implications. The world’s transition towards renewable energy doesn’t provide the social license, especially among wealthier countries, to waste or utilize excess energy. 

Paul Anderson reads from “The Town That Said Hell No!” during a 2022 visit to Western. Photo: Rebecca Briesmoore

Wrapping up – and spurring change

The jam-packed day wrapped up with a panel on “Technology as a Driver of Change.”

Despite a bit of a trite start, the day allowed participants to raise important questions that challenged speakers and confronted participant’s worldviews.

Harder to pick up on, but perhaps ultimately more impactful, were connections and conversations that likely resulted from interactions between panelists, as well as the moderators and organizers representing diverse viewpoints. 

At the very least, Western’s commitment to developing this event certainly demonstrates that university administration is paying attention to the evolving energy industry from all angles. 

Whether Western’s community — with divergent programs in environment, business, and engineering that often fall on different sides of the energy spectrum politically — meaningfully engages in conversation beyond this inaugural event…we’ll have to wait until next year to find out.

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