Energy Regulations and Rural Communities

As I currently live, eat, and breathe this thing called a dissertation, you seem to be regularly subjected to thoughts and tangents about it as well.  I appreciate you indulging me, particularly because so many of you have some very real stake in rural communities and their social, economic, and environmental well-being and development.   I view this blog, in part, as a unique opportunity to share my experiences with you and, if luck allows, learn from your own stories and histories in the field and academy.

This includes your experiences with perceptions of regulations and their social repercussions in the rural West.  Yes, I uttered that dreaded word – regulations.  This word has endless connotations, the tone of which typically depends upon one’s political persuasion, occupation, or even the region of the country in which one lives.  Out West, with our many public lands and extraction-based industries, it seems the word can inspire more ambivalence than in other regions.  At least, I find this to be the case in the area of Colorado where I’m conducting my research – Montrose County, in southwestern Colorado.  As many of you know, this part of the state is famous for its unparalleled vistas, rugged terrain, and isolated pockets of people often eeking out a living.  Many times, people in these Western communities weather boom-and-bust economies based on coal, natural gas, or other natural resources and, in bust times, must use their ingenuity and tight-knit relationships with others to make a living from month to month.  This appears to be the case particularly over the last couple years, as the rest of the nation suffers under the weight of a seemingly permanent economic recession.  In these communities, I’m finding that when it comes to uranium mining and milling, there emerge a couple distinct narratives regarding related regulations and, importantly, affiliated technologies.

Specifically, as I talk to area residents, there have emerged two distinct groups emerge, with drastically different worldviews.   One camp – mainly in the communities immediately surrounding the proposed uranium mill site – supports the mill’s construction, has fierce faith in the mill’s ability to create jobs and reinvigorate local economies, AND has abundant faith in regulations and the enforcement capabilities of Energy Fuels, Inc. and various state agencies.  The other ‘camp’ – found mainly in communities further away from the proposed mill site in former mining towns-turned tourist meccas like Telluride – oppose the mill’s construction, contest its job-creating abilities, and voice deep skepticism about health, safety, and environmental regulations and their enforcement.

I imagine that many of you have seen similar divisiveness emerge in rural communities in which you’ve worked, studied and perhaps in which you’ve lived.   I find myself selfishly hoping that you have been as perplexed and divided yourselves as I have been in attempting to analyze the social and other outcomes of these two worldviews colliding.  As a “good researcher,” I strive to genuinely see and experience both worldviews as I work to understand these two camps and what their positions may mean for land-use and energy policy.  The first camp argues that the mill’s corporate owners will need to fulfill their health and safety obligations as they will be under intense public scrutiny, and will have elite technology with which to accomplish this task.  I can see the legitimacy of this argument.  Equally compelling, however, the second camp points to high-profile extraction cases in which regulations and self-monitoring seem to have failed – with the recent BP Deep Horizon oil spill the most frequently-mentioned case.

What have your experiences have been in the field, particularly if you’ve worked in rural communities enmeshed in extraction- or natural resource-based economies?  Where states are charged with overseeing most regulations – as is the case with Colorado, an Agreement State, and uranium and nuclear commodity regulations – I wonder if we see different outcomes or public perceptions than we do in states where federal agencies retain that ultimate role.  I also wonder if we find that this varies with type of ownership of such industries, whether they are public or private.  What have your experiences been?  What are your observations of on-the-ground regulatory enforcement?

Poised to reshape our energy policy, the west’s rural communities often, and again, become the stage on which land-use, environmental and economic justice battles are fought.  What this means in terms of energy policy, rural community well-being, and related social movements remains to be seen, of course.  But we find ourselves in a unique position, as scholars and practitioners of rural development, to begin recording this energy transition.  I invite you to share your experiences of community-level social movements, response to regulations, or other land-use issues.

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One thought on “Energy Regulations and Rural Communities

  1. Hi Stephanie. I’m a city councilman in Kanab, Utah and we are facing a current controversy regarding a proposed pilot project for a new coal gasification process. On one side of the aisle are local residents starved for family sustaining jobs who are willing to roll the dice in the hope that they can find a way to supplement our tourism-based economy. On the other side, is the environmental community who, those they say otherwise, secretly are opposed to anything with a carbon footprint. Recently, what began as a heated argument is becoming a more respectful public discussion which I believe will have long term benefits beyond this project. My perspective is actually different from either group. Our current ordinances allow this kind of project. It’s not about whether I want it or don’t want it. The issue for me are the conditions that need to be met by the company to safely locate in our community. The challenge has been accessing good information for our planning commission to make a determination. I expect that few small towns of 4,000 have the expertise to make such decision and the public resources to help us do so in a cost effective manner are limited.

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