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Rising to the Cleantech Challenge

The oil and natural gas industry propelled America to greatness in the last century. It is the foundation of energy and artificial light, allowing homes and businesses to be lit at night. The industry is the reason America can heat homes in the winter and keep them cool in the summer. Without it, Americans, particularly impoverished families, could have perished from the effect of sweltering summers or bone-chilling winters. With the advent of automobiles, the industry made it possible for people from all walks of life to travel by land, sea or air, opening up the world to everyone.

While the whole world was becoming smaller, industry challenges were getting bigger. One of the biggest challenges the industry faced happened as it evolved at the end of the 20th century. It was our first glimpse of the reality of drilling for oil and natural gas in big cities. For the previous 150 years, the industry had traditionally limited drilling operations to remote, rural locations, far from population centers. The bonanza of the shale revolution changed everything.

READ — How Environmentalism and the Oil and Gas Industry Can Coexist

To maintain public support and license to operate, the industry needed to quickly adapt to its new landscape, but reforms were slow to materialize, a reality that became increasingly obvious with tapping the shale below Colorado’s Denver/Julesburg (DJ) Basin. With drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” sites in and near various Colorado communities such as Longmont — pushback came fast and furious from the public and activists to the industry’s efforts to develop the oil-rich shale beneath the ground.

Mary Austin, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association (CCIA), says the proactive efforts by the oil and gas companies she worked with quickly became obvious when she came on board at CCIA a decade ago. “What hammered home was that they were doing it anyway,” Austin said.

A big part of CCIA’s mission is to help the innovators of cleantech solutions engage with its members, not just oil and gas, but in a variety of industries. Each year, CCIA holds “The Oil and Gas Cleantech Challenge.”

“We do an international call for applications, then the oil and gas companies vet them down to 10 or 12 that they want to meet with in person, and then we do a pitch day,” she said. “We just completed our ninth oil and gas cleantech challenge on September 29 in Denver.”

Heidi Gill, CEO of Urban Solutions Group, founded her company with a focus on developing an innovative sound wall technology after hearing the intensity surrounding noise issues. Like Austin, Gill emphasizes the importance of proactivity in addressing community concerns.

“I always say whether it’s in oil and gas or a different industry, whether you’re older in your career or newer in your career, the people and the businesses that are going to survive are the ones that get good, and get good quick, at understanding the importance of social elements to your business and make it a critical driver for your projects and your operation,” she said.

READ — Clearing the Air on Colorado’s Emissions

With fracking as a focal point for environmentalists and concerned residents looking to halt development of the DJ Basin, the development of solutions in the area became a top priority for the industry. This need led Chris Wright, CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, to focus on creating a new kind of fracking fleet. He wanted one whose generators are powered by electricity that Liberty generates with natural gas captured right on the lease site.

“Our view on electric frack fleets is that they need to check three boxes,” Wright said. “One, they must be cost-competitive with existing fleets; two, they must be operationally as good or better than existing fleets; and three, they have to actually have lower emissions. The history of electric frack fleets is they don’t check any one of those boxes.”

Through ongoing innovations and process improvements, Wright and his team at Liberty succeeded in checking all three. “For us, it’s deciding how many fleets we’re going to build and where they’re going,” he said.

For an industry that thrives on advancing and adopting innovative technologies, no shale play has provided a better test lab for cutting-edge innovation than the DJ Basin.