Governor Touts Consensus on Energy Issues
By Brydon Ross, CSG Director of Energy and Environment Policy
Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal tackled some tough issues in the energy and environment arena during his time in office.
But that didn’t hurt his popularity with voters—he won re-election in 2006 by the highest margin in the state’s history and left office in 2011 with approval ratings above 80 percent. That’s because he worked to build consensus on issues that could be divisive.
“The approach we took was to engage everyone in the discussion and to engage them early,” he said.
Freudenthal will discuss his experience as governor in addressing energy and environmental issues during the CSG Energy and Environment Task Force meeting, Dec. 2, in Austin, Texas.
He reminds policymakers that they should learn the details about these complex issues before making overtures to different constituencies and organizations.
“They will know in a heartbeat that you are like the Platte River—a mile wide and an inch deep—and that’s fair because these issues are really important to wide segments of the population,” he said.
He believes his success came from understanding that stakeholders viewed energy and environmental issues in a sophisticated way.
“We tend to discuss public policy in black and white, yet if you really sit down and talk to people their positions are very nuanced,” he said.
He said detractors often paint energy companies and environmental groups in a negative light, but he found the vast majority just wanted rules and regulations applied to everyone in a predictable and even-handed fashion.
The governor understood that there were always vested interests on both sides of an issue—some groups wanted to stop growth and others believed environmental compliance was an afterthought or an unnecessary expense.
“What I did was to not try and satisfy the fringe,” he said.
Freudenthal oversaw the development of landmark regulation on the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, a process that has generated controversy but has helped fuel a large increase in oil and natural gas production. Other states across the country have modeled that regulation.
While people in Wyoming were accustomed to oil rigs and exploration activities, Freudenthal believed more oversight was needed to assure the public that well completion techniques used in fracking were protecting air quality and water supplies.
“The issue is very much the same as it’s always been,” he said. “How do you protect groundwater? Fracking has been used for a long, long time but advancements in technology gave us the impetus to make sure that our regulations were what they needed to be. The disclosure issue was very much on the public’s mind and we set out to address that in what I thought was a very rational way.”
The U.S. Department of Interior has used Wyoming’s chemical disclosure rule as a partial framework for its most recent proposal to regulate fracking on federal lands.
“It’s flattering to be the model for Interior, but they took the model and messed it up. They came up with a new set of rules that frankly are inappropriate and contradictory—stepping into areas of state regulation—and largely unnecessary,” he said.
He believes the agency does not have the expertise and staff to properly understand local factors and conditions. He also believes federal regulators must improve communication. His experience with many federal regulators was that communication with states was treated as a box-checking exercise and deemed “sufficiently met if they let you know in advance of a notice in the federal register,” Freudenthal said.
“The notion of them sitting down (with states) in advance is difficult for them because they believe they know best,” he said.
He cites the recent federal hydraulic fracturing rules as a prime example. He said states had no real consultation process and the Bureau of Land Management personnel in each affected state were never involved in forming those regulations that came from Washington.
Freudenthal believes it’s important for state policymakers to be proactive in energy and environmental issues. Many environmental issues, he said, are increasingly decided by the courts when policymakers fail to act. Congress and federal agencies have become so polarized that it results in courts deciding public policy, he said.
“To me that is a reflection of the federal government defaulting, not only in this administration, but in prior administrations, in doing nothing,” he said. “The problem with the courts making policy is that somebody wins and somebody loses, as opposed to a deliberative decision of what makes the best sense for the country.”