How the industry can counter perceived negativity

Misleading portrayals of energy producers and suppliers as the bad guys and energy consumers as the good guys continue to fuel the public's negative perception of energy producers.

Misleading portrayals of energy producers and suppliers as the bad guys and energy consumers as the good guys continue to fuel the public's negative perception of energy producers.

This theme has plagued the industry since the dawning of environmental consciousness forty years ago, and has been aided and abetted by the dramatic oil spills offshore Alaska in 1989 and in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico last year.

Recent media accounts have raised the polarization to a new level. These accounts place the oil-producing companies and countries in a negative light while simultaneously portraying consumers as the aggrieved party.

But it is time for the energy industry to become more proactive in reframing these outdated perceptions, which have dogged the industry for more than two decades and sown distrust between consumers and producers. These lingering, negative perceptions help no one: they threaten economic growth, endanger geopolitical stability, and even undermine personal freedom.

The industry needs to unite and create one voice to secure solutions to the big challenges ahead, and start re-shaping the public debate on the role of energy in the global community. It can do this by educating consumers on the role they play – the collective impact of the individual choices they make in their automobiles, homes, and businesses.

International energy companies and their partners – the resource holding countries – must start countering the criticism that lays all the blame for global warming at the door of energy suppliers, and next to none of it on consumers who demand energy every minute of every hour of every day.

We must work to drive home the message about our international investment in communities, people and technology, and promote our efforts in sustaining and securing global energy supplies and finding new ways of producing cleaner energy.

The story needs a new definition which acknowledges that we are all stakeholders in environmental protection and sustainable economic growth. The narrative needs to shift from an emphasis on supply and development – where the least environmental impact takes place – to a focus on demand and consumption. It is the latter which has the most impact on the environment.

We can begin by trying to change the dynamic of the conversation, demonstrating what the industry continues to achieve and contribute to the advancement of society. This requires getting out from inside the safe confines of the energy bubble and initiating consistent and proactive engagement with all stakeholders, and not just when a disaster occurs.

For our critics to have a mandate, they need to maintain an “us versus them” mentality – a wedge firmly entrenched between the industry and society as a whole. We need to get rid of that wedge.

The energy business must get its house in order to remove any inconsistencies that give potential naysayers leverage. We must find a way of not being seen to promote self-interest.

Our industry needs to regroup and refocus on building relationships that will engender a better understanding of the energy business. Some ideas, for example, would be to partner with independent stakeholders and NGOs.

We must also start to reach out to all our communities, and use real examples to show how hard we are working to meet the world's growing demands for energy while creating economic development and protecting the environment.

This will involve wider engagement with a number of organizations, including academic and educational institutions. One of our most significant dilemmas continues to be how to find the intellectual capital required to secure the future of the energy industry. How will we hold on to the wisdom of our most experienced people, and enable them to share their experience with a generation of young people?

This younger generation is being constantly bombarded by negative imagery and rhetoric about our industry. This negative portrayal has resulted in fewer young people wishing to pursue a career in the industry. As a consequence, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of courses catering to the industry's technical needs in European and American universities.

Another option could be to establish industry standards on transparency, and solicit ratings from Transparency International in the same way as a corporation would request a credit rating. This would show that we have nothing to hide.

Whatever the approach, success will depend on making some radical changes. These changes may initially be uncomfortable for some, because it will inevitably involve a culture shift for the industry.

Thought leadership is what is needed, and maybe for all of us this begins at home in our own communities and our own companies. The irony is that for an industry that touches almost every human life on the planet, we have allowed our contribution to be dismissed and let ourselves be portrayed as the bad guys. It's not a war and we're not the enemy – but it's time for us to come out fighting and tell our story.

James McCallum
CEO, Senergy

This page reflects viewpoints on the political, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental issues that shape the future of the petroleum industry. Offshore Magazine invites you to share your thoughts. Email your Beyond the Horizon manuscript to David Paganie

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