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Assessing Conflict in the Policy Process, Using Fracking as a Lens

On March 21, the Earth Institute welcomed Tanya Heikkila, associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, for a presentation on what she termed a “diagnostic approach” for analyzing policy conflicts, with a specific application to hydraulic fracturing debates in Colorado. Heikkila presented her and colleague Chris Weible’s recent and ongoing research examining the political landscape surrounding fracking in Colorado, and assessing the nature of conflict in this policy process.

Fracking site
Hydraulic fracturing site in Colorado. Photo: presentation by Tanya Heikkila

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into the earth in order to extract oil or gas. Fracking can lead to high increases in productivity and yield—it makes it possible to extract large amounts of natural gas by drilling into rock at a depth of 7,000 feet or more. In Colorado, fracking reached its peak around 2007 and has contributed to dramatic decreases in the price of oil and gas. And while drilling has declined since then, extensive debates about the use of fracking have persisted, with concerns over air and water quality as well as questions about who should govern the process. Heikkila has studied this political debate extensively, and shared some of her recent findings.

Heikkila’s research focuses on understanding conflict in these policy processes. What is the nature of conflict? What are its causes and consequences? Conflict is essential in the policy process, and understanding conflict better has the potential to assist policymakers and improve outcomes. She looked at three aspects of conflict: sources, characteristics and effects, which are detailed in the list below. Her study population consists of “policy actors” in Colorado—those from government, NGOs, industries, academia, etc. who are actively involved in the fracking policy conversation. Data was collected through interviews, online surveys, as well as news media and policy actors’ websites.


Characteristics Effects

Risk and benefit perceptions

Divergent policy positions

Change in intensity of the conflict

Policy Learning

Perceived threats

Satisfaction with policy

Viability of Venues

Unwillingness to compromise


Diversity of Networks

Diversity of Experience


Tanya 1
Tanya Heikkila speaking in Low Library on Monday, March 21, 2016. Photo: Hayley Martinez

Heikkila revealed several interesting points in her presentation. She noted that characteristics of policy conflict are quite interrelated. For example, policy actors with divergent policy positions (compared to the modal position, which here is a preference for state regulation of fracking) are more likely to perceive threats, and be unwilling to compromise. Most respondents in the study showed intermediate levels of policy conflict characteristics.

The relationship between sources and characteristics is nuanced. Policy learning and insular networks are important, and viable venues and brokers are only related to divergent preferences for government regulation. However, these nuances might be explained by the oil and gas context, due to the association between risk perception and divergent views of level of government regulation.

When looking at effects, most respondents agree that the health of the policy process has worsened somewhat since 2013, but most also agree that the protection of the environment and public health is slightly improved. There is substantial variation in perceptions of effects across respondents, but people with higher levels of policy conflict characteristics view most effects as worsening.

Heikkila made clear that this research applies very specifically to policy processes around fracking in Colorado, and doesn’t reflect the thoughts of the general population. The survey may play out differently in different contexts. However, it still provides insight on how to potentially improve policy processes, such as by refining the quality and frequency of interactions among policy actors. Future research is needed examining different policy processes, and over a longer period of time.

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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