Why More Oil & Gas Development Means We Need More Vigilance from the Industry

Over the past few years, America has experienced a surge in fossil fuel development.  Armed with new technology and funded by record profits, the oil and gas industry is finding new ways to tap reserves: Extracting natural gas by fracking; squeezing oil from dirty tar sands; erecting drilling rigs in the most remote places of our earth.

Many leaders in the oil and gas industry view this new development as an unmitigated blessing, but not everyone agrees. Unless we both use the natural gas in the right way and extract it in the right way, for instance, it could cause more harm than good.

The scientists who connect climate change to the increase in extreme weather and the residents in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wyoming whose drinking water has been contaminated know the true cost of unchecked drilling. And they are not alone. From the Deepwater Horizon to the Kalamazoo River pipeline spill, more and more Americans are learning the toll oil and gas development can take on our health and well being.

The public backlash against irresponsible industry practices is growing stronger, and it will continue to harden until the oil and gas industry changes its ways.  President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline project in part because of public concern over safety.

Unless the industry acknowledges the threat of climate change, places a premium on safety, earns an uncompromising reputation for doing it right, and promotes the efficient use of these important resources, it will have a fight on its hands every time it moves into a new community.  This is not because environmentalists will stir up a fight, but because normal citizens are nervous about their health and communities.

But the path forward for the industry is not a hard one. This week, I had an opportunity to address many representatives from the oil and gas industry at the http://www.rice.edu/energy/ in Houston. I tried to suggest why the industry had lost the trust of ordinary citizens through non-disclosure of what’s in their fracking fluids to having special exemptions from federal law to not admitting where problems have occurred to resisting adequate government oversight—all legitimate causes for concern.  I then sought to articulate what the oil and gas industry can do to earn the trust of the American people.

1. Embrace Climate Policy

It is well past time for the oil and gas industry to acknowledge the reality of climate change. Most of the industry leaders I have spoken are smart, evidence-based thinkers who recognize the danger of global warming; they just don’t always say it out loud when they’re in Washington.

But if they want really want expanded natural gas or oil development to be good for America and not just for profits, they must come to the table and negotiate over carbon limits. We may not see eye-to-eye, but we have to engage in the conversation.  We have to make sure the natural gas reduces the carbon pollution of our energy supply; it must help to supplant coal and accelerate deployment of truly clean renewable energy.

Instead of fighting the future, it’s time for energy companies to help build it. Many companies have glossy ad campaigns about how green and sustainable they. It’s time to make those slogans a reality and become full-fledged energy companies that innovate in renewables as well as oil and gas and invest equally in both. 

2. Use It Wisely: Promote Efficiency

The danger of all this newly available oil and gas is that it could weaken efforts to use it carefully and efficiently.  If there is plenty of it, why worry?  Why not drive wasteful cars and trucks?  Why worry about a leaky home or office building?  Heck, leave the lights on all the time. 

The answer, of course, is that even if there is lots of domestic oil and gas, it still pollutes.  It still alters our climate.  It still causes air pollution. The oil and gas industry needs to be a force for using this inherently-risky but useful commodity carefully, not profligately.

3. Do It Right

If Americans are going to allow drill pads into their communities, they have to trust that companies support and are following strict safety guidelines and are governed by enforceable laws. 

Take natural gas development. NRDC and other groups have proposed guidelines for the responsible development of this resource in new areas. The guidelines are detailed, but they follow some basic principles: First, do no harm (including don’t allow leaky systems that put highly polluting methane into our air).  Second, stay out of areas where the risks exceed the rewards.  Third, in any area, be responsible—follow best practices on all aspects of the process, and also accept government oversight.

These are the kind of principles that could rebuild trust, yet nearly every government or public interest effort to inspire the industry to embrace them has stalled. It’s time for energy companies to commit to earning the respect of the communities they wish to enter.

4. Act Now

As we debate the role of domestic fossil fuel resources in our energy future, there has never been a more important time for the fossil fuel industry to approach this debate differently than it has in the past.

The industry has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the lead in getting it right for the next generation of domestic energy production. Now they have to seize that opportunity. As Americans, we can all hope they do.