2021 State of the Rockies Fellows-Faculty Research

Understanding Policy Debates on the Future of Hydraulic Fracturing
and Abandoned Wells in the Rocky Mountain West

Countries around the world including the U.S. are facing a paradox of how to provide affordable reliable sources of energy, while minimizing negative impacts on the local and global environments. There is increasing evidence that climate change is occurring and has negative impacts on society, and one of its main human causes is the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) for energy. At the same time,burning fossil fuels has been an engine for economic development around the world. Thus, how energy is produced and consumed has complex repercussions for society.

Kat Miller Stevens

Kat Miller-Stevens
Faculty Director

Recently, the production of oil and natural gas in the U.S. reached record levels. The U.S. is now the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world. The key to this increase in production has been a combination of technological developments around fossil fuel extraction most prominently hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking). While hydraulic fracturing was first developed in the 1950’s its proliferation began in the 2000’s when it was connected with directional drilling, other technological developments, as well as increases in the price of oil and natural gas that helped make recovering the fossil fuels more profitable.

Today, hydraulic fracturing is used to drill for oil and gas in dozens of states in the U.S. The Rocky Mountain region has some of the most prolific drilling in the country as it includes multiple shale plays most prominently the Niobrara (Colorado and Wyoming) and Bakken (North Dakota and Montana) and other various basins or shale plays in Utah and New Mexico. It is widely credited with boom periods of production and economic growth in these states. While there are economic and even environmental benefits associated with hydraulic fracturing, there are also substantial environmental losses as well as public health risks. One of the growing problems caused by fracking is that in the wake of falling oil and gas prices in 2020, energy companies are going bankrupt and abandoning their wells. The clean-up and plugging of these wells become the responsibility of local and state governments. This has sparked policy debates and political battles in these states about how to best regulate or even allow hydraulic fracturing.

Northern Colorado fracking site

Northern Colorado fracking site

The purpose of this research is to better understand these policy debates about the future of hydraulic fracturing and abandoned wells in the Rocky Mountain West. In this first year, our goals are to: explore consequences of hydraulic fracturing and abandoned wells on people and their environments; explore how grassroots social and cultural ideas shape social movements and public policies related to hydraulic fracturing and abandoned wells; investigate social justice and environmental justice issues pertinent to hydraulic fracturing and abandoned wells; research the positive and negative economic impacts on communities relevant to this industry; and explore how the business strategies of oil and gas corporations change in response to social movements and public policies.

Johnathon Pierce
Dr. Johnathon Pierce

We are excited and pleased to collaborate with Jonathan Pierce on this project.  Jonathan J. Pierce,Ph.D. is the Vice-President of Safeguard Marine, LLC. He is the lead scientist and project manager on research projects seeking to mitigate risks posed by shipping on the marine environment. Dr. Pierce received a Ph.D. in Public Affairs from the School of Public Affairs,

University of Colorado, Denver (CU Denver) in 2012. He has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in public policy and administration at CU Denver, the University of Denver, and Seattle University. His research interests examine the motivations and advocacy efforts of actors in the policy process applied to natural resource development. 

— Kat Miller-Stevens


Fellows Research Findings

evan and dova
izzie and greta

Meet Our 2021 Fellows



Dova Castaneda Zilly is a senior from Seattle, Washington. She is an Environmental Studies & Economics double major and interested in studying the interconnections of those two disciplines to help preserve and conserve the environment. In her free time she is an avid rock climber, an EMT and spends a lot of time with her dog, Duck. She is excited to work with the other fellows this summer, and study the oil and gas industry's relationship with the communities they are in in the Rocky Mountain West. 



Evan Rao is a junior from Chicago, Illinois. He is an environmental studies major interested in finding ways to protect the natural world while meeting the needs of communities. On campus, Evan is involved with the Colorado College Law Society, Catalyst Newspaper, and Audubon Club. In his free time, Evan loves birdwatching, playing guitar, and bouldering. He can’t wait to learn more about how fracking affects the Rocky Mountain West this summer! 






Greta Forseth is a junior from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am an environmental science major and political science minor and interested in environmental policy, conservation and sustainability. On campus, I am a part of the women’s soccer team and works with green team athletics. In my free time I enjoy running, skiing, cooking, and exploring the outdoors. I am excited to be a State of the Rockies fellow and looking forward to learning more and hopefully spending time with the other fellows. 



Isabel Hicks is a senior from Denver, Colorado, majoring in environmental studies with minors in journalism and political science. On campus, Isabel works as the Co-Editor-in-Chief at The Catalyst Newspaper and is passionate about providing the community with engaging and informational news reports. In her spare time, she enjoys fostering cats, cooking vegan meals for her carnivorous friends, and backpacking in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Isabel is very excited for the opportunity to research the political and economic debates surrounding abandoned fracking wells and to share her findings with the college. 





Saigopal Rangaraj is a junior from Gaborone, Botswana, and Mumbai, India. He is pursuing a Mathematical Economics Major, and Political Science and Anthropology minors.  Saigopal is extremely passionate about the intersection between urban studies, technology, and international development, as well as the ability of public policy to improve people's lives. His pastimes include playing board games, watching movies, playing soccer, and traveling.

Report an issue - Last updated: 02/02/2023