LOMAX: There’s much more agreement than conflict on Colorado energy issues

Author: Simon Lomax - October 12, 2017 - Updated: April 17, 2018

Simon Lomax

News values are used by reporters and editors to determine which events to cover and how much prominence to give them. They include things like impact, timeliness, proximity and the element of surprise. But in politics, there’s one news value that dominates: Conflict.

There are good reasons for this, but when the search for conflict and disagreement becomes obsessive, the news suffers. Because sometimes conflict isn’t the big story. Sometimes the opposite of conflict — when people agree — is the actual news.

This is especially true on the energy beat, where I have spent years as a reporter and advocate. For a recent example, consider the coverage — or lack of it — when three statewide elected officials spoke at an energy conference in August.

“I often say to people when they talk about oil and gas: Do you realize how many times each day that industry touches your life?” Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne (D), who’s running in a crowded Democratic primary for governor, told the audience. “Whether it’s heating your home, it’s getting to work, it’s the multitude of products that you use every day. So you need to think about how vital the industry is to our everyday life, and the number of jobs that are created in Colorado and throughout the country.”

Lynne also praised the state’s regulatory framework for oil and gas, including the massive response to the Firestone tragedy. “We believe we have in this state the best health and safety practices for the oil and gas industry,” she said. “We have a way of working together here in Colorado to be proud of.”

Next, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) discussed the national security implications of domestic energy production.

“You can now stand in town halls in our state and imagine with people that we are on the cusp of being energy independent,” Bennet said. “The reason that is important to me is that we are living in an increasingly dangerous world … so the opportunity to bring (energy production) home is a big deal, not to mention the jobs.”

“The accomplishment is amazing,” Bennet said. He also praised the “excellent” ongoing work of the Hickenlooper administration to “balance the needs of the industry with the demands of local communities.”

For his part, Gardner also stressed how energy production in Colorado impacts every other economic sector: “A strong oil and gas economy means a stronger Colorado.” Gardner also discussed his work with Bennet and other Democrats on energy issues, finding new international markets for crude oil and natural gas produced in Colorado. “A lot of times the successes that we’ve had … they’re not always shown on Fox News or MSNBC,” the Republican senator quipped.

But these comments went unreported by mainstream media outlets. That’s important, because national environmental groups like Food & Water Watch, 350.org and the League of Conservation Voters have spent years and millions of dollars pressuring Colorado’s elected officials to oppose oil and gas development. Their statewide and local campaigns — which constantly promote a narrative of conflict — have attracted extensive news coverage.

And yet, three of the state’s top elected officials — two of them Democrats — clearly showed the conflict narrative by anti-oil and gas groups isn’t working. That is newsworthy, but the story emphasizes agreement over conflict, and so it was overlooked.

A few weeks earlier, something similar happened with another candidate for governor — U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D). Polis is famous for pushing anti-oil and gas ballot measures, but when he appeared on a bipartisan panel of lawmakers in early August, his energy comments were surprising.

“I think we’re in a great place as a state,” Polis said at the event, hosted by the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry. He praised Colorado’s work on “the next generation” of oil, gas and renewable technologies, and even called for the construction of more oil and gas pipelines. “If we can have better pipeline infrastructure, we can reduce the costs and be more competitive and at the same time reduce some of the surface impacts that we hear about from local homeowners.”

“There really isn’t any sector that isn’t touched by energy,” he said. “And so if we can build … a stable pricing advantage in energy in our state, that can be a competitive advantage across the entire business sector.”

The Denver Business Journal and Western Wire, a pro-industry news and opinion outlet, initially covered these comments. But no other outlets followed the story.

Think about it: If one of the state’s biggest antagonists toward oil and gas now agrees with other elected officials about the importance of energy development, that’s major news. If he hasn’t changed his mind and somehow misspoke, that’s newsworthy too. But the initial story, lacking conflict, remains unpursued.

To be sure, conflict will always be an important news value to help journalists prioritize the events of the day. But if we want an informed debate and constructive discussions about energy in our state, conflict must be put into perspective. There is much more agreement than disagreement over energy issues in Colorado, and that story also deserves to be told.

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax is a research fellow with Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders, public officials and citizens focused on energy policy, and an adviser to pro-business groups. Before going into advocacy, he was a reporter for Bloomberg News and a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association. The views expressed are his own. Find him on Twitter at @simonrlomax.