LONG BEACH, CALIF. -- Oil and gas companies must launch an aggressive public relations campaign to counteract the efforts of groups opposing exploration, an industry lobbyist argued this week.
Environmental organizations and others fighting new drilling have prevailed at winning people to their side, said Jon Haubert, communications manager for Western Energy Alliance, a trade group for independent oil and natural gas production companies.
"They are incredibly effective," Haubert said of opponents. "Whether you agree with what they are saying, or if they're not telling the truth or not, if they're not using facts, it's irrelevant.
"They're very disciplined," Haubert added. "They're always on message. They're organized. They're very coordinated, and everything they do supports their overall mission, and that's prohibiting access to domestic energy."
Haubert advocated a new industry approach as he spoke at a conference here on the Golden State's oil shale resources. The two-day event examined the current state of oil and gas drilling in California and the west. The gathering took place as companies are working to extract larger volumes of petroleum from the Monterey Shale, a swath of California land stretching from the middle of the state south to Los Angeles County. It is believed to hold as much as 15.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil (EnergyWire, Dec. 5).
The push to grow development in California has triggered concern from environmental groups and some lawmakers, who argue that the state first must tighten regulation of drilling.
Opponents point to risks they see from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique where high-pressure volumes of chemical-laced fluid is injected into shale rocks to push oil and gas to the surface. Some argue that it is dangerous and threatens supplies of fresh water.
California lacks any specific rules on hydraulic fracturing, said Damon Nagami, Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney.
"That gives a lot of people a lot of anxiety and concern," he said. People don't know where fracking is happening, what chemicals are being used or where wastewater is being disposed of, he said.
"We don't think it's adequate that this basic information isn't available," Nagami said.
Drilling opponents have been successful, Haubert said, which is noteworthy even if the industry challenges the credibility of arguments used.
"Politically, I say, hats off," Haubert said.
The industry has the facts on its side, Haubert said, including that expanded drilling creates jobs, brings money to cities and will reduce imports of oil from hostile nations. It needs to find a better way to get those messages across, he said.
But those fighting hydraulic fracturing said that a new public relations effort won't be enough to change views on the issue.
"They're dreaming if they think they can put the genie back in the bottle and somehow clean all this up with a greenwashing campaign," said Josh Fox, director of the 2010 movie "Gasland," which highlighted concerns about hydraulic fracturing. "It's simply too widespread, and the stakes are too high."
The industry's "own science indicates their wells fail, crack and deteriorate at an alarming rate," Fox said.
Drilling opponents aren't winning simply because they're better at spin than the oil and gas industry, said Emily Wurth, Food and Water Watch's water program.
"Their messages aren't resonating in the same way that the message of either people from affected communities are, or people who have larger messages about climate change and the future of the planet," Wurth said.
"Obviously, we think that their facts are not true," she said of the industry.
Effect of 'Gasland'
"Gasland" has shaped how many people see oil and gas exploration, said David Quast, California director of Energy in Depth, an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. That is despite the fact, he contends, that the movie is factually inaccurate.
A well-known scene in the film shows a man lighting his tap water on fire, which some contend is the result of natural gas wells leaking and allowing methane to seep into drinking water. The natural gas industry argues the methane is naturally occurring.
"This documentary is the reason ... we have such concern about fracturing. It's become this sort of cause célèbre. But it's people who really just want to shut down the industry," Quast said. "This is a good way for them to do it."
Energy in Depth has produced "Truthland," which strives to counter some of the arguments made in "Gasland." "Truthland" shows a man lighting water on fire at a home where there isn't any natural gas exploration nearby.
"If you hear your friends talking about 'Gasland,' I would give them a copy of the movie, " Quast said of "Truthland." "It's really important to debunk popular culture when it's out there debasing science. "
The movie "Promised Land," expected to be released later this month, stars Matt Damon as a natural gas company salesman and will focus negatively on hydraulic fracturing, Quast noted (EnergyWire, Sept. 25).
"We're prepared to deal with the inaccuracies," Quast said.
The industry wants people to think that "flammable water" is naturally occurring, but that is false, said "Gasland" director Fox. It is an attempt to create doubt about the validity of arguments from those who oppose drilling, he said.
Oil and gas companies in their new campaign, Fox added, have hired some of the same firms who previously worked for cigarette companies.
"Their argument is weak, and it's crazy, and it's ridiculous," Fox said.
Haubert proposed a game plan to counteract opposition to drilling and win support from residents, lawmakers and others.
The industry must understand that many of the arguments against oil and gas recovery are emotional and not economic, he said. Drilling advocates have talked a lot about the benefit of job creation, Haubert said, but for those who already have jobs, this point isn't compelling.
"It's a great argument, but it's not what determines their decision to check that box on the ballot," Haubert said.
Producing oil and natural gas domestically means reducing imports from nations that have little oversight of drilling, Quast said.
"This is an incredible environmental success story as well as an economic success story, and we shouldn't lose that, because that is one of those emotional issues that are important," Quast said.
Haubert urged oil and gas companies to "not just hide your head in the sand." They should seek validation from third-party groups and invest in efforts that reach out to the public, he said.
Drilling opponents responded that the industry is wrong to focus on public relations.
"What they're saying it absolutely ridiculous, and it is shameful that their reaction to an engineering problem is more PR," Fox said. "It's shameful what they're doing, as they go across this country and destroy people's homes and lives and imperil their health and shatter pieces of the American dream across the country, that what they think they can do is just advertise more."