Plenary Speakers at SRA’s 2014 Annual Meeting Assess Risks from "Fracking," Legalized Marijuana and Natural Disasters

The Society’s December meeting in Denver provided members with plenty of food for thought as prominent experts addressed this broad range of risk issues in their plenary presentations. Here are some highlights.

Monday Morning Plenary on Hydraulic Fracturing

On December 8, the conference’s opening plenary session featured four important speakers who presented their perspectives on this issue, with an emphasis on the Colorado context of the meeting.

Bernard Goldstein, Emeritus Professor and Dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, led off with a provocative discussion from a public health perspective. Noting that the situation in the Northeast is different from that in Colorado, Goldstein argued that “fracking” should be described instead as “unconventional shale gas development” and that non-fossil energy production would not solve all of our problems. At the same time, he indicated that levels of risk associated with this type of extraction are difficult to evaluate and that multiple sources of “toxicologically relevant agents” are involved.

Concerns about a lack of transparency appear to be common, Goldstein suggested. Even if fracturing does not directly contaminate, other impacts of shale gas development such as increased truck traffic are also concerns. The Pennsylvania’s controversial Act 13 was overturned largely on the basis of a “lack of scientific study” of associated risks, he stated. [Editor’s note: Pennsylvania’s Act 13, which overhauled the state’s oil and energy policies in the context of expanded extraction activity, was partially struck down by the State Supreme Court in December of 2013 and continues to be the subject of ongoing court battles as of February 2015. SP]

Tisha Schuller, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, spoke second and presented “The Case for Domestic Natural Gas.” She described herself as an “environmentalist from Boulder” but agreed with Goldstein that solar and wind power would not be enough. She argued that the availability of energy was related to people’s ability to escape from poverty, but also that industry must adapt. Schuller talked about “de-escalating [the] fracking wars” and stressed the importance of listening in this context, describing the questions associated with energy production as “worthy of engaging” and reminding us that we all need energy.

Patty Limerick, Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado and a historian by training, provided a third view. She saw opportunities for broader stakeholder involvement in addressing fracking-related concerns but also feared that neutral approaches were “endangered.” She laid out the principle concerns as contamination and public health, the elusiveness of information, doubts about inspection and enforcement, worries about emergency planning, “legacy” (long-term) issues, and people’s frustration over being heard and responded to. While Limerick believes most citizens are not yet “immersed in bitter conflict,” she does feel that distrust is getting in the way of efforts to communicate. She described what kind of communication she feels is needed to move forward.

Finally, former Colorado governor and Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University Bill Ritter provided some closing remarks. He mentioned the history of industry-environmentalist collaboration on rule-making in the state; however, he also noted that five communities have banned fracking. Ritter believes that public life is not just about the science but about managing risks. He expressed hope that Colorado could become an advisor to other areas of the world on how to make this kind of energy extraction environmentally sound.

Tuesday Morning Plenary on Legalized Marijuana

Moderator David Goff, Dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, provided some opening remarks. He mentioned our low levels of knowledge of marijuana use and encouraged us to frame our thinking in terms of “risk compared to what?” Legalization in his view should be considered relative to a criminal justice approach, which generates its own public health impact through the incarceration of large numbers of people – with “young men of color” disproportionately affected.

Amanda Reiman, Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy with the California Drug Policy alliance, summarized the history of marijuana use beginning in 3000 BC and including its regulation in the U.S. since 1937. She reviewed what we know of the science involved in marijuana’s effects, noting that cannabis use has no potential to be fatal. She acknowledged the risks of dependence, as well as mental illness in the already predisposed population, but also presented the arguments concerning pain relief and other medical applications and the public policy benefits of legalization.

Tim Byers, Associate Dean for Public Health practice at the Colorado School of Public Health, then went over the evidence on potential harms, including the risk of lung cancer and other diseases from inhaling the smoke, the mixed evidence on heart disease effects, and the likelihood of increased traffic safety risks. He concluded that the risk of major disease seems small.

[Editor’s note: According to the Washington Post, about $700 million worth of legalized marijuana was sold in Colorado during 2014, including over $300 million for recreational use. Colorado’s new Attorney General Cynthia Coffman was recently quoted by U.S. News & World Report as saying that the $76 million dollars in state revenue this generated was “not worth it.” SP]

Wednesday Luncheon Plenary on Natural Disaster Risks

The final plenary of the meeting featured a joint presentation by Kathleen Tierney, Director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, and Susan Cutter, Director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute of the University of South Carolina. The speakers outlined the relationship between social organization and the structure of recovery, noting that social, economic, political and historical processes should all be seen as forces in building up risk. Such factors as power differentials associated with globalized supply chains, patterns of migration, failed governments, and in some cases loss of natural protections should be understood as contributing to increased vulnerability.

Susanna Priest, SRA News Editor