Interview

Dueling Ideologies: Green vs. the Oil and Gas Scene

Todd B. Willis, Editor-in-Chief, The Way Ahead

In order to frame the public perception conversation, The Way Ahead interviewed two executives at opposing ends of the debate. By asking each of them the same questions, we hope their answers will provide a comprehensive yet unbiased representation of the conversation.

What is your company’s mission and your role in the organization?

BA: Greenpeace is an independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protests to expose global environmental problems and help promote solutions that we believe are essential to a green and peaceful future. We’re based on strong principles of nonviolence and bearing witness, so we go to areas where we perceive environmental harm is likely to happen and we take peaceful direct action to stop and/or raise awareness of the issue.

My role is to lead the international work on the Arctic. The genesis of my work was the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) because, up until then, our focus was on unconventionals like oil sands. After the Deepwater Horizon we became increasingly aware of the frontier areas that the oil industry was considering, ultradeepwater and the Arctic, and we started a campaign to expose those operations.

DB: FTI Consulting provides an array of advisory services that address the strategic, reputational, financial, regulatory, and legal needs of energy clients. We have extensive experience addressing conflicting regulatory frameworks, power industry restructuring, pervasive contractual disputes, and litigation. We also furnish strategic communications services across all the disciplines, from capital markets to investor relations. We’re also the managing contractor for Energy in Depth [a “research, education, and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base”] communications. I am the managing director of strategic communications and have been a spokesperson for the industry for many years.

What is your own opinion of the oil and gas industry?

BA: My opinion has unquestionably evolved. One aspect that drives my personal opinion is the high level of access the industry has to government and civil servants. Whether that is perceived to be a bad thing or not by the general public is arguable, but the industry certainly has an influence over public policy.

The other driver is the way the oil industry has increasingly cultivated its social license to operate. Today, we see a slick, well-integrated, and high-profile public relations push by the industry. I’m struck by the lengths the industry goes to cultivate this cultural persona through sponsorship of high-brow art galleries, public art spaces, and museums, in an attempt to soften its brand. People who frequent those events are there to see fine works of art and museum exhibits of dinosaurs, so being in that environment softens the perception of a company that could be involved in oil spills in the Niger Delta or in the GOM.

It was no surprise, then, that during the worst of the Macondo incident, BP was pushing this idea that they were sponsoring wonderful gala events and running arts projects in the Natural History Museum [in the UK]. I feel very strongly that these are thinly veiled attempts to detoxify the brand so as to soften the perception of a company and detract attention from the day-to-day realities of life in the oil industry—mainly that it’s a polluting industry with incredible closeness to governments, that undermines action toward climate change, and is involved in spills and social unrest.

DB: I think it’s one of America’s—and the world’s—most important industries. In fact, I wish everybody in school had as required reading Daniel Yergin’s [book] The Prize, which chronicles the history of the industry and how critical the reliability and continued flow of oil has been in every major conflict since the late 19th century. For instance, the main reason why the Allies won the Battle of the Bulge in WWII was because Hitler’s supply lines of petroleum for his tanks were interrupted, so they simply ran out of fuel on the battlefield. Important events like that make one realize how critical oil has been to the world for the last 150 years.

Yet it’s a vital industry that continues to evolve rapidly due to the advancement of technology and the need to be conscious about protecting the environment, the latter of which the industry does a better job of all the time but unfortunately does not do a good job of telling its story.

Do you think your opinion is in line with that of the general public?

BA: I freely admit that I work for an environmental organization and that some would see me as a radical lunatic with a cynical view, but I think it depends on the context of the question. Some people may view the industry as a means to an end and their relationship ends at the petrol station, only to be reconsidered during moments of heightened media attention. During events like the Macondo oil spill, there is a lot of public ire as people digest the risks and relaxed attitudes toward safety taken by these companies.

The flip side is that we live in an age when people are very attached to their cars. That’s certainly the case in the United States. Also, considering that we live in times of high austerity with mass unemployment, the industry is almost like a necessary evil.

DB: I think the public’s perception varies by region of the country [in the US]. For instance, although we hear about the low public approval rating nationally, the natural gas industry has an 80%+ app roval rating in Texas. People in Texas understand that it’s a vital part of their lives and prefer it as a source of heating over electricity because it’s clean-burning and easy to use. But one is liable to get a different answer from someone in California or New York.

Unfortunately, so much of the industry’s image has been guided by its portrayal in the news media and in films like Gasland, which have been proved to contain falsities that have nonetheless been incredibly damaging toward public perception. That image of igniting water from a faucet was allowed to be perceived to be caused by a nearby drilling operation, but in fact the people in that area had been lighting their water on fire ever since they had running water because their water table/reservoir sits directly above a coal seam so that methane gas migrates with the water. Indeed, the water has always had methane but no reporters bothered to report that fact and instead the image was burned in the public’s mind.

Because it’s always been a part of the community in Texas, people are cognizant of the negative aspects but ultimately understand its positive impact on their lives. When they look at the big picture they realize it’s an incredibly productive enterprise for the region.

Why do you believe that industries that involve discretionary spending—restaurants, retail, computers—consistently rank favorably in public perception polls compared to industries that provide necessities, such as banking, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical?

BA: Unlike filling up a tank of gas to drive to work on a Monday morning, only to be greeted by a demanding boss, when I go to a restaurant with my girlfriend it’s a special moment that I look forward to. What the industry provides is assumed to be part of the mundanity of life in the 21st century, whereas a restaurant is a choice that I make to enjoy myself and one that takes me out of the ho-hum life in London. That said, I think there are deeper perceptional issues of the industry as well. This is an industry with a checkered history of safety and responsibility, and it’s evident in the way some of the public perception polls have turned out. People tend to not trust extractive industries.

DB: Oil and gas, along with banking and pharmaceuticals, provide integral and necessary parts in people’s lives. They’re fixed costs: You must fill your tank with gas. If the price is high, it hurts the pocketbook. People resent the costs in their lives that they have to bear, whereas going out to dinner is a pleasure activity that is optional and associated with having fun.

What are the main topics shaping the public’s perception of the industry today?

BA: Three things: energy future, climate change, and risk of accidents.

People are beginning to have a discussion about how we will provide our energy needs for the rest of the 21st century. On climate change, our perception, tacit or otherwise, is beginning to influence the public as the phenomenon of climate change becomes universally acknowledged. The sense that climate change is happening around us is increasing.

The other topic is the risk of accidents. From Deepwater Horizon to Exxon Valdez and other tanker disasters/crashes, they all resonate with people. Although these may be freak events that are unpredictable, in the back of people’s minds is this idea that the industry has been responsible for disasters they see in the news.

DB: The main catalyst seems to be hydraulic fracturing. About 6 years ago, many of the environmental and anti-oil and -gas groups decided to mount a concerted effort to make hydraulic fracturing into a boogeyman in the public’s mind. The word “fracing” has essentially become a curse word in the American lexicon thanks to the media. There’s more disinformation in the public domain today than there ever has been, so it’s easy to see why the public perception has become negative even though hydraulic fracturing’s actually been a blessing to the country.

That said, there are legitimate environmental concerns of which the industry is cognizant and works every day to minimize their impact. For a long time, the process used mostly freshwater, but the industry is beginning to trend toward using brackish water and, in fact, some hydraulic fracturing companies have suggested to me that within a few years we will be able to do these jobs with brackish water entirely. Although the overall usage by the industry of water statewide is only about 1%, when the public hears that hydraulic fracturing uses 3 million gallons of water in each fracturing job, it sounds like a lot of water no matter that in the overall context it’s a very small percentage. The truth is that the industry doesn’t want to be in a position where it is competing with people for drinking water, particularly in times of drought, so the use of brackish water will hopefully diminish public concerns.

What steps should the industry take to mitigate and/or change how it is perceived?

BA: I would argue that there’s a lot the industry can shift away from, including increasingly unconventional and marginal sources of oil like pre-salt in Brazil and Arctic oil in the northern Barents Sea, and instead undertake a palpable shift toward spending real capital in energy efficiency and clean technology.

It’s not Greenpeace’s role to make the industry better or be perceived to be better, and frankly it would be great if the industry went away altogether because there are serious problems in terms of environmental and social impacts. In an ideal world, we’d like the industry to not be here. However, we live in the real world and we realize that’s not going to happen, so our job is to engage with the industry when possible to make reasonable points that reasonable people can agree upon.

DB: I gave a presentation about 10 years ago at a conference in which I told the audience that our industry was more inept at public relations than the tobacco industry, and I truly believe that. We’ve gotten better, particularly in the last 5 to 6 years, and I think we’ve shifted somewhat the public perception, but it cannot be changed in a radical way in the near term. It’s a long-term process.

Each advertising effort is very costly and makes a small dent, but they do make a difference because our side of the story goes out to the public for their consumption and consideration in an otherwise biased media. The industry has had a long and difficult relationship with the news media, going back to John D. Rockefeller, and it’s only in the last 8 to10 years that there has been a focused effort by the leaders in the industry to change that relationship and change how we communicate with the public. Over time it can be changed, but it takes baby steps.

It seems that environmental organizations and the industry are always on opposing sides of discourse. What would one side need to see from the other?

BA: I’m not naïve enough to suggest that we turn off all the wells and shut down every coal-fired power station, but the environmental effects of the current carbon logic of burning fossil fuels are becoming increasingly hard to argue against. We cannot afford to continue burning and extracting these large amounts of fossil fuels because they are putting us on a trajectory for upwards of 6 degrees Celsius of global warming.

It’s clear to us, even in the short-to-medium term, that we need to be making a rapid shift toward a decarbonized economy. That won’t happen overnight and we accept that, but I don’t believe the industry’s suggestion that we will need oil and gas beyond 2030 or 2040 or 2050. In fact, if I were a shareholder in an oil and gas company, I would be worried about my money being in a company that’s out of kilter with a shift toward de-carbonization and wasn’t flexible enough to recalibrate their priorities and capitalize on those opportunities.

We’d need to see a real shift, as opposed to hot air, toward a decarbonized economy and see an end to the most reckless exploitation of the marginal sources of oil, such as the Arctic and oil sands.

There are also a lot of links between the industry and governments and they’re overall very cozy with each other, so that doesn’t do an awful lot to improve public perception and that would need to change.

DB: In the environmental movement—like any movement—there are people who have good-faith concern and there are groups who are basically no different than the Occupy Wall Street movement, the latter of whom are essentially anti-development groups in the game simply to stop development activities by using—in the case of environmental groups—environmental laws as vehicles toward obstructionism. Unfortunately, the reality is that the radical part of that movement has been infiltrated by the same anarchist elements that infiltrated the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the fact is that you will never satisfy those folks because it’s impossible to have a meeting of the minds with people who are beyond reason.

It’s certainly possible to sit down with environmental groups—and I’ve been involved in those processes—that are truly interested in finding ways to improve and modernize regulation of the industry. Those groups are out there and they will work with you. They may not agree with a lot but at least they’re willing to sit at the table with you and try to find an approach that everyone can agree to live with.

Unfortunately, we do spend a lot of time and energy throwing rocks at each other through the media. The media has become an entity that thrives on conflict. The industry has to figure out ways to live within that system and still be able to get its messages out. Collaborative processes—whenever we can engage environmental groups, academics, and regulators—can have the biggest impact.

What advice do you have for young professionals in the industry or considering a career in the industry?

BA: You have seen first-hand the dangers and problems with the industry, so make sure to think about your company’s capabilities of responding to an accident. Question the basic assumption of rushing into the most remote, fragile, and technically challenging areas to extract hydrocarbons. Challenge the fundamental assumptions and join the race to the future toward the technologies that will get us a cleaner and more peaceful world.

DB: For those considering a career in the industry, come join us. There has never been a more exciting time to be in this industry, and we will probably never have a period more exciting than what the next 20 years will be. Oil and gas companies have needs in practically all disciplines, so it’s a wide open deal for young talent right now.

For those already in the industry, learn about the issues your industry is facing and take time to follow the various news sources to understand what’s out in the public domain. Become an advocate for your company and your industry. So much of the public perception is shaped through conversations that go on in churches, coffee shops, and town hall meetings. The other side is very well organized and motivated, so their messages, true or false, are well-vocalized and if there’s no one there to answer to the false ones, that’s what gets heard. It’s important for the continuity of our industry that we develop more advocates who are willing to stand up for what they’re doing. 


Ben Ayliffe is the head of Greenpeace International’s Arctic Oil Campaign. He has been at the organization for 10 years and has worked on many Greenpeace issues, from illegal logging to climate change and nuclear power. Ayliffe has a master of science degree in environmental technology from Imperial College, London.

David Blackmon is managing director of strategic communications for FTI Consulting, based in Houston. Before joining FTI in 2012, he had a 33-year career in the oil and gas industry, working on public policy issues for companies such as Shell, Burlington Resources, El Paso Corporation, and Coastal States. From April 2010 through June 2012, Blackmon served as the Texas state lead for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. He attended Texas A&I University and The University of Texas at Austin, earning a BA in accounting.