Humphrey School News

Preventing "Fraccidents"

August 1, 2017
A fracking operation in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, showing extensive piping and hoses

It might sound a bit preposterous: a tri-coastal group of college seniors come together to devise hydraulic fracturing policy for the State of North Dakota. And only one of them has ever been to that state. But thanks to the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship Program’s Junior Summer Institute (JSI), this proposition is a reality, and it’s making a real impact for future policymakers.

This summer 18 rising college seniors from around the country came to the University of Minnesota for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ inaugural JSI program. The Humphrey School is one of five institutions that offers the intensive seven-week experience designed to prepare undergraduate students—mostly from underrepresented communities—to thrive in master’s degree programs and launch careers in public service.

Part of their work was to collaborate in small groups to to address a number of grand challenges.

Students Matt Rider, Kay Threatt, and Dylan Bach standing outside with the Cedar Riverside skyline behind them.The trio of Kay Threatt, Matthew Rider, and Dylan Bach decided to take on an environmental challenge. Dylan, a public health major at University of California, Berkeley, and a native of Long Beach, California, explained that they considered a number of topics. “We talked about carbon emissions, the Paris Climate Accord, international environmental justice. We settled on fracking in North Dakota because it’s in the Midwest and the topic we knew the least about. We had heard the term, but not as a policy area.”

It’s a big topic, but the trio used their strengths to dig in.

Fixing Fracking
The group’s mission was to create policy that addresses the environmental impacts of fracking including health risks, lead contamination within the water systems, radioactivity, and increased carbon and methane emissions, all due, researchers say, to the lack of adequate regulation and environmentally efficient technology.

As Matt explained, “It combined all of our skills and backgrounds. Dylan has public health, Kay in relations and negotiations, and I major in organizational behavior and business.” Each student worked a policy angle. Matt, a native of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and a student at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, drafted a policy that would provide a tax subsidy program for technological updates and innovation in the North Dakota fracking industry. Dylan worked with the stick to Matt’s carrot, devising a policy that creates a spillage tax to encourage proper maintenance of pipelines and wells. And Kay, a native of Richmond, Virginia, and an international politics/security studies major at Georgetown University, devised a multi-agency and industry Fracking Task Force that would be responsible for monitoring and research on spill data.

Five other JSI teams tackled a diverse group of policy issues: economic development in Mississippi, the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, prostitution in New York City, Head Start in Minnesota, and the global refugee crisis. Their summer studies included classes at the Humphrey School and field trips to community organizations and corporate partners including the Center for Victims of Torture, the Minnesota State Capitol, Target’s corporate responsibility department, and other locations. They learned not just how to research and develop policy, but what makes a policy work.

Team Fracking assessed their three proposed policies on five criteria: effectiveness, efficiency, economic feasibility, equity (no group is disproportionately affected), and finally, political feasibility. That final criterion pushed Dylan’s spillage tax policy off the table. Kay explained, “We knew it would not be popular or politically feasible with North Dakota’s business-friendly legislature.”

“Kay, Matt, and Dylan are bright, thoughtful students who demonstrated a remarkable ability to apply the principles of policy analysis to the very complex problem of managing the environmental effects of fracking,” said Professor Greg Lindsey, whose expertise includes environmental planning and policy. “I was particularly impressed with their grasp of economic theory and their proposals to use economic instruments to achieve policy objectives.” 

More than Policy School
Spending nearly two months in Minneapolis had deeper meaning too, especially for Kay and Dylan, who hail from the coasts. Dylan joked about being California-centric in his perspective before coming here, and Kay admitted that Minneapolis had seemed like stereotypical flyover land.

As Kay was preparing to come here, she was asked if she understood the racial divisions happening here. She didn’t. “I live in Washington, DC, which is openly political. So coming here and seeing what the Minnesota paradox really was, seeing tensions and divisions, [people] living this pleasant life but knowing what’s under the surface….My mind was blown.” Additionally, a class she had here on gentrification hit home for her. “How it’s affecting investment and politics, how it’s a result of racial covenants done in the early 20th century. Things happening here are also happening in DC, in Georgetown, where people of color were pushed out. I can see how research done here is affecting research in DC.”

Dylan concurred with Kay. “This is the first time I’ve been outside California by myself. Being here gave me a sense of not everything is California based. I was really excited to come here because Minnesota has a high population of refugees and Southeast Asian folks, like me. In Berkeley I work with a lot of Southeast Asian youth. It’s been cool to see how Minnesota has done a lot to allow folks to have social mobility.”

The Path Forward
In the end, the trio is recommending a combination of establishing a fracking task force and a tax subsidy program to support innovation. But aside from learning to address this grand challenge, the experience has confirmed for these students that they are on the right paths.

As Kay says, “It reaffirmed what I want to do. I love policy and I want to be a policy advisor for a president. t was nice to get that background in how to write policy memorandums, forming them from the beginning to the end.” And Matt, the one member of the team who has been to North Dakota, added, “It gave me a better understanding of what I want to do and tangible ways to do that. I want to be a public servant, but I didn’t know what that looks like. Doing policy analysis here helped me know what good policy looks like. This program gave me the right tools.”

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