Both of These Things are True:
Making Sense of the Public’s Dependence on and Growing Opposition to Oil and Gas
Alberta has been and should be one of the world’s friendliest environments to conduct the business of oil and gas. Instead, pipeline companies are facing unprecedented regulatory upheaval and nearly constant project opposition. Why?
The opposition isn’t just activism. Climate change is now the tent under which all energy conversations are conducted. And in the climate tent, fossils are the fuels of the past.
In January, I was in Calgary to give a talk to the pipeliners at CEPA. Up until this point, my public talks followed the theme of my work and book, Accidentally Adamant:
- Oil and gas are crucial;
- The public largely doesn’t understand how endemic oil and gas are to every aspect of social and economic wellbeing; and,
- Our job in the industry is to educate and engage the public more thoughtfully
The first two parts help all of us in oil and gas feel better about the situation we find ourselves in, and the third focuses on the what we need to do better. Which is a lot, but not enough for the situation in Alberta. Nor what is happening in my home state of Colorado.
This linear path — educate and engage about how important we are to promote public acceptance — no longer suffices.
Instead, today both of these things are true:
- The world requires oil and gas as the life blood of economies and the foundation for so much of our economic prosperity and quality of life.
- The dominant public point of view is that “the age of fossil fuels,” including oil and natural gas, is over. In this worldview, several things are a given:
a. Climate change is happening and addressing it is a priority;
b. Reducing the use and emissions of fossil fuels is a given; and,
c. We are well on our way to making this happen.
In the shorthand of perspective #2, fossils are over.
The industry has spent the last several years celebrating the first and fighting the second. It’s time to chart a new course.
The problem: We’ve done such a good job of creating abundant, affordable, always-available energy that the world, including the people we see every day, takes it for granted.
We all expect our heat to run, gas stations to have fuel, and lights to never flicker – at a predictable, affordable price.
Around the world, billions of people are coming to have and expect a middle-class quality of life and its requisite available, affordable, reliable energy.
None of this demand is going away soon.
It is because energy is so omni-available (yes, I coined a word) and reliable that it has become figuratively invisible, laying the groundwork for a public that believes they no longer require it.
It matters because: If you work in oil and gas in a place like Colorado, you bump up against this paradox every day. It infiltrates each conversation about energy and the environment in ways that are hard to address directly, because much of the public works under the assumption that we don’t need fossil fuels anymore.
A stark example is anyone who wants to “leave it in the ground” while still benefiting from omnipresent oil and gas-based materials and fuels.
The critical mistake companies are making: We have been focused exclusively for too long on educating the public on the reality of fossils.
Instead, we need to ask; How does an oil and gas company make sense of this world where both of these things are true?
Seize the day: We are at a tipping point for oil and gas social risk. The public’s anger toward fossil fuels may soon materially impede the ability of oil and gas companies to build and operate their projects. Successful companies will rethink their relationship with this vision of the energy future. Here are the steps I’m recommending:
- Recognize the new dichotomy demands a new conversation. The oil and gas industry must increasingly engage with a skeptical (or even hostile) public with decision-making influence. They are looking to a different energy future — one that is high tech, decarbonized, and environmentally sustainable. We must join their conversation.
- Seek first to understand. There are a wide variety of worldviews about the future of energy — of which we are generally dismissive. That attitude isn’t going to cut it anymore. Spend some time each day expanding your company’s perspective and understanding by actively seeking out alternative news sources, particularly where a focus on climate and deacarbonization are taken for granted. You won’t have to look far. You can read about ocean reefs, tech innovations, or buttocks.
- We must meet the expectation and commitments of the energy moment. I know it’s tempting to turn off the electricity at the Fossils Are Dead stadium party, but we can’t. The public expects affordable and always-on energy, and even if they protest your natural gas pipeline into the Northeast (ahem!), they will blame you for the heating oil shortage. And its environmental footprint.
- We must share the aspirations of the public for the future that they expect (our shared future!). This will allow us to show up and join the conversation that is already underway. It’s time to think about how the oil and gas industry can join a vision of the energy future that is high tech, decarbonized, globally affordable, and unstoppable.
Accepting that both of these things are true is daunting. That’s why I’m going to spend the next several months in these emails to you looking at the trends that will help us, as an industry, translate the new reality into constructive action.
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