Interview: Tisha Schuller Doesn’t Shy Away From Debate

by Jeff Share, Hart Energy

Originally published by Hart Energy, October 18, 2019

The next time I’m in an involved discussion or debate on energy issues, I want Tisha Schuller on my team. Why? She is enlightened, understands the business from every angle and doesn’t mince words. In fact, for the principal and founder in 2015 of Adamantine Energy in Boulder, Colo., words are her business.

Some background: Schuller is a 1993 graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor’s of science degree in earth systems with an emphasis in geology. She is strategic advisor for Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative and directed a symposium focused on reducing poverty in the developing world through natural gas. Schuller wrote a book titled “Accidentally Adamant” in 2017.

She was also president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) from 2010 to 2015, during which time, she encountered two life-altering crises: evacuating her family from the Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder in 2010 and a second evacuation from Colorado flooding in September 2013. Before joining COGA she was a principal and vice president with Tetra Tech, an environmental consulting and engineering firm, for 15 years. A public speaker, she also serves on the National Petroleum Council. She has a weekly email series called “Both of These Things are True.

How did she end up in oil and gas?

“I ended up in oil and gas by accident and reluctantly,” she told Hart Energy. “I was working as an environmental consultant, and the company I first worked for only had oil and gas work for me to do. Over the next 15 years, I ended up doing 85% of my work in this sector—and over time—I came to know, respect and even love the oil and gas industry. When the opportunity came to represent the industry as the CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association—I jumped at the chance!”

Environmental Debate

Schuller’s education and work experiences have made her an expert on the environmental issues confronting the energy industry. But that’s just one issue that has led to today’s serious divide today, she said.  

“We aren’t just looking at environmental issues anymore—we are in the middle of a culture war,” she said. “Polarized politics are embodied in the energy, environmental, climate debates. And this is not a war where we can arm and escalate, because, among other things, we are losing ground day by day. Instead, we have to change the conversation and transcend the conflict.”

Many believe the activists’ goal is simply to shut down the entire petroleum industry. So, the issue might be whether climate change is really a subterfuge for a greater agenda. It’s not quite that simple, Schuller said.

“Today many people want to end the use of fossil fuels, but not for the reasons we think. We aren’t in a ‘professional activist vs. the industry’ scenario anymore,” she said. “A tremendous number of people, maybe even a majority, in North America believe that the era of fossils is over. They are wrong, but they believe it, and they are mobilizing.

“Perhaps most importantly, ‘they’ are our stakeholders: our communities, regulators, elected officials, and neighbors,” she continued. “So, it doesn’t really matter if their facts are wrong; we have to engage with them in a new kind of dialogue to chart a shared energy future.”

2020 Election

And what about climate change taking on a near-religious fervor going into the 2020 elections?

“Everyone in the energy, environment, climate debate has gone into a religious frenzy, including us (industry),” Schuller said. “Climate has permeated every aspect of the liberal worldview, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss them or their concern about climate change. Opposition to oil and gas has created such a significant social risk (meaning political, policy, and community risk) that we have to assess it as we would a weather risk—and mitigate that risk proactively.

“In the same way it’s irrelevant if we believe in the risk of a tornado, it’s irrelevant if we believe the same things as climate hawks. Instead, we can focus on addressing that risk proactively and positively.”  

And the time to do that is now, she insisted.

“I imagine they (the American public) are exhausted and discouraged like the rest of us,” she said. “They want someone to lead who has vision, resources, commitment, dollars and scale. Wait, shouldn’t that be us? Why yes, I believe it should.”

Consulting with leading energy companies offers Schuller a front-row seat to their response to this critical issue.

“The international oil and gas majors have read the tea leaves well and are putting out bold visions for a decarbonized energy future. [One could argue that they have responded reactively to investor pressure in the European Union. Either way, they are showing a path forward.] Generally, in the U.S, we are showing up a day late and a dollar short: methane reductions are expected; talking about climate without breaking out in hives is mainstream.

We need to up our game significantly and immediately, or risk being run over by a galloping public opinion.”

Schuller offers a clear solution to “de-escalate” the debate. “Energy companies need to share the vision the public has of a decarbonized energy future. With that shared vision, the discussion of the path and current energy requirements becomes palatable.”

Schuller also elaborated on one of her most passionate topics: addressing climate change by raising people out of poverty. “I argue that raising the standard of living of billions of people around the world is a more pressing priority than climate change,” she said. “If we can do so with less carbon, we absolutely should—but it is the height of hypocrisy to slow down economic development around the world by requiring a zero-carbon energy system.”

The COGA Years

During her five years leading COGA, much was accomplished in moving Colorado into a leading position in the development of oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains For Schuller, two programs in particular stand out.

“We built an industry ambassador’s program that became the model of many you see today.,” she said. “We also built a year-long leadership program, EnGen, for the Energy Generation, in order to engage and keep millennials in the industry. They are our greatest asset in this paradigm shift and I’m honored to have been a part of engaging so many.”

However, a recent change, Senate Bill 181 which was signed into law earlier this year, is casting a shadow on future oil and gas development in Colorado. The new law gives local communities increased regulatory authority over oil and gas operations. Industry officials claim this will threaten future investment.

“I think that only the best operators—across the value chain—will still be in business in five years. Companies will have to be true development partners with their communities,” Schuller said. “This is a radically different paradigm. But, before you divest from your Colorado assets, take note: these kinds of operational requirements will be coming to a community near you. It’s only a matter of time. Instead, invest in meeting the challenge.”

Regardless of today’s seemingly insurmountable challenges (at least to others), Schuller insists her positive perception of the energy industry has only grown through the years.

“My love for this industry knows no bounds. I challenge myself every day to look at the world through the eyes of the opponents of oil and gas, and I still see vital, precious, resources that we will want and need for decades to come,” she said.

“More importantly, I see an industry with the dollars, people, knowledge, R&D capacity, and ingenuity to lead into the decarbonized energy future. Add to this basket of resources the millennials who are coming of age and into leadership – and I know – we got this,” she added.

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