Changing the Public's 'Take' on the Energy Industry--Redux

Abstract: It's a challenge that might never be met, but some industry representatives believe a powwow among government, industry, academia, and even the media might create an energy "ambassador" and a new way to enhance the industry's public image.

Analysis: Despite millions, even billions of mirrors of all sizes, most overweight people are quite able to ignore their reflected image and waddle through life without "resizing."

Fortunately, many finally take action, but usually only after the implications of their portliness finally become real--that is, when their physical health and/or life expectancy is threatened or impaired. For those who don't act... heart disease, diabetes, and myriad other problems can ensue.

Such disregard of the obvious seems to be a common human failing. It permeates much of what we are on a daily basis. But it often spills over into what we do, as well. Take, for example, the petroleum industry. For a whole host of reasons, including indifference within the industry itself, the general public's perception of practically every phase of the petroleum industry has been one of intense distrust for so long, it's now virtually accepted as fact that what the industry does and says simply cannot be trusted. This blanket perception began to impact the industry's health a long time ago. One day, it could even affect its life expectancy.

Research conducted recently by a leading national industry association concludes that the petroleum industry is second only to tobacco in this country for having the worst overall public image.

That's one of the reasons why Mark Baxter, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University (SMU), Dallas, wrote a commentary in a recent issue of Hart's E&P Magazine suggesting that the industry create a new organization led by an energy "ambassador" who would take control and lead a coalition toward a positive national public relations campaign. It's been proposed before, without success. Nevertheless, Baxter says he's receiving a lot of positive feedback on the suggestion. Perhaps the time has come.

Having joined the Energy Institute's staff only a couple of years ago, Baxter has nearly 30 years' experience in oil and gas exploration and production. Like many petroleum professionals, he's been painfully aware of the energy industry's image problem, which he lays partly at the doorstep of the industry itself by dint of its oblivious lack of communication with the public. This miscommunication, which he says masks the facts, combined with miscommunication by special interest groups that disguises the truth, has led the public to draw assumptions and beliefs based on superficial appearances.

It doesn't take many rerun episodes of the TV drama "Dallas" to see how such suppositions can be formed. Many well-publicized hydrocarbon-related disasters and periodic, inadequately explained rises in gasoline, natural gas, and electricity prices haven't helped, either.

Instead, writes Baxter, the industry could adopt a policy that both details energy's value to society and educates the public. If the industry were to transform its efforts from "reactive lobbying" to improving its public image, it could circumvent a great deal of negative campaigning and ridicule, he points out.

The industry has failed to detail its positive contributions in a unified voice, he writes. Were it so, for example, Americans might better appreciate the substantially lower per-gallon price they still pay at the gasoline pump, compared to those paid by their counterparts in Europe or Asia. Such benefits are taken for granted in the U.S., along with others, such as the hundreds of thousands of jobs the industry creates, either directly or indirectly; the lifestyle-enhancing goods it produces; the extensive taxes it pays; and so much more.

From his office in Dallas, Baxter says creation of a coalition made up of industry companies, federal and state government, academic institutions, and, interestingly, the general news media could result in creation of a new industry advocate organization, or "council" as he prefers to call it.

In addition to his/her industry advocacy, the council's leader or "ambassador" would be available at all times to discuss the industry's role in daily life, to field media inquiries, and to conduct interviews and press conferences dealing with various energy issues.

But the ambassador, said Baxter, also would have to stand by his/her convictions and be willing to rebuke industry adversaries, establish a benchmark for ethical conduct that others would aspire to achieve, and conduct a strong campaign without fear of liability concerns. A tough assignment.

Another of the ambassador's duties would be to occupy the hot seat, said Baxter. "If and when mistakes are made, the industry needs to readily admit it, apologize, and advocate measures to correct it and mitigate its consequences." An even tougher assignment.

To give the impetus for the new council's creation, says Baxter, a federal government office, possibly the Department of Energy, could call a meeting in Washington, D.C. of the previously mentioned groups. Industry companies represented at the powwow should be deemed "credible," he added, demurring from naming names. Additionally, energy-oriented academic institutions such as his organization, Sarkey's Energy Center at the University of Oklahoma, The University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology, and others, would attend. Media represented could include national, state, and local electronic and print news organizations.

Also prominent among attendees would be representatives of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB), which Baxter called a model for the proposed national organization. The OERB, founded in 1994 and funded voluntarily by Oklahoma producers and royalty owners, has been an undeniable success in improving the industry's image in the Sooner State. It has restored thousands of abandoned or orphaned oil and gas sites in Oklahoma, and in so doing has created a highly successful statewide advertising and public relations campaign. That campaign has heightened the public's awareness of the petroleum industry's importance to the state's economy by more than 90 percent, says OERB literature. It also has connected directly with schools statewide to reach more than 350,000 students so far through factual, hands-on programs and material provided free of charge. The OERB cooperates closely with the state government and is funded entirely by a fractional "check-off" assessment on sales of crude oil within the state. Their annual budget now stands at around $9 million.

In its 10-year existence, the OERB has been the impetus for energy producers in several other states, including Illinois and Ohio, to create similar organizations. More are being considered in Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and California, among others.

Mike Terry, OERB executive director, takes Baxter's hypothesis a bit further. He said a coalition of state-oriented groups such as OERB could be organized to function on the national level. Fully half of OERB's budget goes toward public awareness, he said, and if similar allocations from the other state groups were combined, the overall awareness effort could reach serious proportions, with no one company or industry organization exercising effective control by size of its contribution.

"Mark's conception is an excellent one," said Terry. "But it will take creation of groups based in the big oil and gas states, most of which don't yet have them. Producers and their existing organizations in those states will have to make that happen. It would take some time, but it can be done. We proved it in Oklahoma and fund it on Oklahoma crude oil sales, which are far lower than in many of those other oil producing states."

Both Baxter and Terry said they're looking into the possibility of helping arrange a meeting to discuss options for creating an organization such as Baxter suggests.

As for who might be suitable for the role of a national oil ambassador, neither Baxter nor Terry would hazard a guess. However, several other industry members, when asked, indicated that it would have to be someone with a high national profile and cloudless credibility. One of them said that during his involvement in National Rifle Association affairs, actor Charlton Heston did a great deal to raise that group's image in the public mind and did much to change their perception of firearms owners. Potshots taken at Heston usually petered out before they hit him.

Hollywood likely would not be a good place to find such an ambassador, however, said others. One did mention the likes of General Norman Schwartzkopf as a possible candidate, while another tabbed the intrepid fighter pilot and space flight pioneer General Chuck Yeager. Still another named retired U.S. Congressman Bill Archer as a fitting nominee.

Perhaps you yourself, as a RigZone reader, might also be interested in suggesting a possible candidate.