Reflections of a Near Enemy

We’ve spent the better part of a year together assessing the drivers of social risk and identifying prudent mitigation measures. You can’t always control how your company responds to rising social risk, but you can reflect upon your own role in the energy-environmental conversation happening across North America. 

near enemy is a subtle emotional state that keeps us from progressing in a challenge. For example, hatred is the far enemy of love, but the subtler – and one might argue more unproductive or dangerous emotion – is the near enemy of unhealthy attachment. The far enemy of hope is hopelessness, but the near enemy is an unhealthy optimism (guilty as charged!). 

Engaging the near enemy allows us to get to the root of an issue and work constructively to change our situation – let’s apply the concept to the social risk of the oil and gas industry. To transcend survival and instead thrive as companies, we have to start putting new tools in the toolbox.

To close out the year, I am reflecting upon a thoughtful response I got to my millennial edition from an environmental advocate who wants to see the oil and gas industry succeed at making the world a better place, and incidentally is also a millennial. Skip this issue at your future peril; without radically changing the energy-environment paradigm for your operations, the mounting fronts of social risk will continue to grow.

Both of these things are true:

  • The oil and gas industry is increasingly engaging in commitments on carbon and a decarbonized energy future.
  • The efforts often appear superficial and half-assed to our allies who are putting themselves on the line to support industry success.

The problem

I’ll summarize our exchange. Companies are starting to get the talk about climate and decarbonization right – in part by sharing the aspirations of their shareholders and stakeholders. For example, in California, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) speaks of facilitating the “energy transition,” and as I’ve covered more than one time, Oxy speaks winningly of carbon neutral oil. 

As my valued colleague writes, “These are steps in the right direction.”

But what the industry isn’t doing is conveying that they really “get it.” Just last week I was reflecting on this excellent post by Amy Harder which conveys that decarbonizing the energy system requires more than just adding clean energy. It fundamentally requires decarbonizing our existing coal, oil, and gas fuels – either pre- or post-combustion – or removing them from the system entirely. As you know by now, I am a fundamentally pragmatic person – so I know all the but but BUT that goes along with the idea.

My colleague puts it best: “What I want to hear from industry is, ‘Yeah, we get that carbon-intensive fossil fuel use is not good for the planet, and we’re on board with the notion of, say, economy-wide net zero emissions in the US by 2050.’” This can include solutions such as direct-air capture and CCUS – it’s not a “zero fossil” position.

My colleague also explicitly acknowledges the following points: in the U.S. and globally, people need access to affordable and safe energy; a transition from a primarily fossil fuel-based global economy will take time; an overly rapid transition could be even more disruptive and deleterious to humanity than climate change itself; and a significant percentage of oil and gas production goes toward chemical feedstocks. In other words, he really gets it.

What he would also like to hear from industry is this: “We as an industry will devote ourselves to 1) minimize environmental impacts from our activities, 2) minimize climate emissions from our activities, 3) work to reduce the carbon intensity of our fuels, and 4) work toward a rapid and orderly transition to clean energy.” 

You, like me, might be thinking: Yeah, isn’t (most of) that what we have been saying?

Not quite.

It matters because:

A number of great environmental organizations put themselves on the line to support an energy transition that includes a role for the oil and gas industry. For them to continue to break away from the no fossils chorus, we have to meet them more than halfway.

These allies aren’t our near enemies. It turns out, our near enemy is our half-hearted commitment to working toward a shared vision with them. We focus on how far we have come without clearly articulating our leadership role in the energy future, specifying how far we need to go.

Reclaiming that leadership is not capitulation to oil and gas opposition.

Reclaiming leadership makes us a worthy ally, honoring the risk they take in working with the oil and gas industry. 

The critical mistakes companies are making: 

Doing the bare minimum, which undermines our allies. Undervaluing how important they are to the oil and gas industry’s ongoing success. 

As my colleague wrote to me, “I know this would not satisfy everyone and may be pie in the sky to expect from industry. But it’s either this, or decades of misery for all involved!”

I couldn’t agree more. 

Seize the day.   Take your thinking one step further. I recommend: 

  • Contemplate what the world looks like to climate hawks. In this worldview, there are three important sources of carbon emissions from combustion: coal, oil, and natural gas. (I acknowledge there are other important sources like cows and deforestation. But this doesn’t mean we should change the subject.) In this worldview, these emissions sources have created the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to stop burning them. You don’t have to agree with this perspective, but it’s important to understand it, in order to create a bridge.
  • But but but. Hit pause on the “but” that you’re dying to express. (I know, I am too! I acknowledge – quality of life as we know it, lack of scalable replacements across the energy spectrum… I’m with you.) Hit pause and know that this is the worldview we are meeting. And jumping in with a but fundamentally undermines the conversation.
  • Can you acknowledge responsibility? My 16-year-old son, Carter, has learned that if he quickly takes responsibility for his (occasionally knuckle-headed) actions, in his words, “everything goes much better.” He doesn’t always find this starting point fair (there’s a lot of suppressed “but but but…” in my house!), yet he knows it opens up a space for us to work on the consequences and solution together. In my opinion, everyone should take responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, from political polarization to congressional logjam to elevation of carbon levels in the atmosphere.
  • A personal role first. If you personally can acknowledge responsibility for the role you and your company play in environmental degradation, it opens up space to talk about the benefits, the tradeoffs, and the shared responsibility we all have.

This post has been challenging, because it feels that if individuals, companies, and the industry take responsibility – it will open up a hornet’s nest of blame, legal battles, and endless demands for change. The thing is, all those things are already happening. So, my challenge to all of us is – what are we going to do to change the paradigm within which we have this conversation?

On that note, I wish you wonderful holidays, thank you for a tremendous year of Both of These Things Are True, and may you have a spectacular kickoff to 2020! I’ll be back in the new year.

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