Defusing conflicts caused by drive for energy alternatives

The increasing US drive for energy self-sufficiency already has resulted in conflict over its impact on the environment. This, in turn, has spawned a new type of organization -- one which attempts to act as a neutral intervener either to mediate environmental and resource disputes or to aid communities in anticipating and resolving related problems at an early stage.

One of the largest and most experienced of these groups is known as ROMCOE (Center for Environmental Problem Solving), situated in a nondescript industrial park east of Boulder. Its nine staff members are attempting to develop and formalize extra-legal methods of "conflict management" for the extremely complex social issues that arise from environmental and energy concerns.

"We attempt to get people with real conflicts of interest not to compromise, but to find alternative solutions to their differences," says W. John D. Kennedy , the group's executive director.

While their basic goal is above criticism, organizations like ROMCOE are controversial. Maintaining neutrality between environmental and industrial interests requires the balance of a tightrope walker and invites criticism from all sides. According to sources knowledgeable about ROMCOE, Mr. Kennedy and his associate director, Susan Carpenter, have managed to strike such a balance.

Even so, a group like ROMCOE, which gets a substantial portion of its $240, 000-a-year budget from corporate sources, is suspect in some eyes. Still, there seems to be a growing willingness among those involved in disputes to explore new institutional approached to resolving their differences.

"The vast majority of the environmental community wants to settle differences out of court if at all possible," said Robert Turner of the National Audubon Society. "Many business leaders are tired of knocking their heads in court. Increasingly, they are becoming more concerned with resolving problems rather than winning legal battles," believes James C. Wilson of the Rocky Mountain Energy Company.

ROMCOE pursues two distinctly different activities. One is mediation. When a dispute has ground to a stalemate, ROMCOE intervenors will come in and help the various sides reach an agreement.

The second, and more controversial, activity is what Miss Carpenter calls conflict anticipation." She characterizes it as a "preventive, rather than curative" approach.

here ROMCOE identifies areas of potential conflict and the parties likely to be involved. Then, through workshops and similar activities, the intervenors attempt to bring the various parties together to work out their differences before the dispute has become emotional and polarizing.

One of ROMCOE's most innovative attempts along these lines involves a potential "boom town" area in Colorado: Gunnison County. About 10,000 people live in the area now, and the economy is based on tourism and ranching. However , it is the site of intensive exploration for molybdenum, uranium, and base metals -- and that activity presages major population growth. One proposed AMAX , Inc., mine, for instance, would bring an estimated 6,000 people to the area.

Two years ago AMAX invited ROMCOE into the area to practice its techniques of "conflict anticipation." The group aggressively sought community involvement and organized a tour to other areas that already have experienced rapid growth. Participants in the tour included mayors, commissioners, town planners, chiefs of police, a school board member, people from county social services, and representatives from public interest groups, churches, business, and the media.

"We were told that the people in towns like Gillette, Wyo., and Craig, Colo., had been studied to death and wouldn't be cooperative. But we found that they were quite eager to share their experiences with their peers," says Mr. Kennedy.

ROMCOE has been monitoring the response of the Gunnison community since the tour. The major outcome is that various interests there have realized that they must do something, must plan for the future, Mr. Kennedy says. "It is difficult to measure success," he admits, "because when we are successful nothing dramatic happens."

Conflict anticipation is of particular interest to industry because of its potential for reducing community opposition and the resulting litigation, which can be expensive and time consuming.

But some environmentalists are leery. George Pring of the Environmental Defense Fund refers to it as "conflict suppression." He says he is concerned that the net result of groups like ROMCOE will be to reduce the concessions that developers will make in order to complete their projects.

Despite his reservations, Mr. Pring believes groups like ROMCOE have a positive role to play in the 1980s -- a view shared by many professionals in the field.

While most of its past activities have been limited to the Rocky Mountain area, where the potential for energy-environmental conflict is particularly great, ROMCOE increasingly is becoming involved in issues at a national level. And Mr. Kennedy reports that inquiries from individuals interested in starting similar groups around the nation are on the rise.

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