A bold proposal for changing the image of the oil and gas industry

Here we are: just a little more than a month before an important national election. It’s an election that will determine the direction America heads in many important areas—not least of which is policy affecting energy.

The choices are quite distinct. One candidate favors aggressive regulation and intrusions into the energy market by government in order to suppress the consumption of oil and gas and to encourage the production and use of costlier alternatives. The other candidate would rely more on market forces and less on the exercise of official authority.

Choices, indeed.

I don’t know who will win.

I do know that, no matter who wins, the oil and gas industry will enter whatever battles it must fight in the next political cycle with a disadvantage.

With the American public, my favorite industry has an image that would be merciful to describe as abysmal. In most places, the American public hates the oil and gas business.

That has to change. Much is at stake in the politics of energy. America loses much when its political leaders make mistakes with oil and gas.

Yet those mistakes are all too frequent. And they’re frequent because the oil and gas industry’s image is so poor that politicians in most states gain favor by punishing it.

That won’t change until the industry’s image improves. I didn’t say unless the industry’s image improves. I said until it improves.

The oil and gas industry’s image in fact CAN improve.

I make that assertion confidently because I’ve lived through the transformation of an institution from scorn to adulation in the public mind.

In the next few minutes I’ll describe that profound change and suggest a few lessons that the oil and gas industry might usefully draw from it.

Don’t worry. I won’t exhort the industry to do more to educate the public. It has to try, of course. But the public doesn’t really want to be educated about oil and gas.

And I won’t encourage everybody to hug the nearest environmentalist.

I’m sure there are hug-worthy environmentalists. I just don’t happen to know any. Or maybe I’m just not the huggy type.

All I’ll do here is suggest an approach to this business of image-improvement that differs from the standard strategy—an approach based on reflection from experience that’s personal yet part of well-known history.

***

I’ll start by telling you about a pilot I saw on television many years ago—not a trial TV program but a person who drives airplanes.

This was when I was in the Air Force during the waning years of the Vietnam War.

In those days, unlike now, serving in the armed forces was not a popular thing to do.

In those days the United States military had a bad public image—much like the image the oil and gas industry suffers from today.

This pilot was the very embodiment of that lowly status—the flight commander of a B-52, a huge, droopy aircraft that dropped bombs in devastating quantity from great altitude.

I had entered his world, the Air Force, through ROTC at the University of Tulsa.

Unlike many colleges and universities in those days, my alma mater was no hotbed of radicalism.

Still, wearing a military uniform and hairstyle on campus could provoke insults.

I remember marching outside and ignoring jeers from guys with long hair in a dormitory overlooking the drill area—ignoring the jeers but hearing them nevertheless.

Later, when I was on active duty, the Air Force often issued orders not to wear uniforms in public except while traveling—and never to appear off-base in combat fatigues or flight suits.

Worn in wrong places, military uniforms in those days could incite trouble, even violence.
Now, please don’t mistake me for a military hero. I was no hero.

The heroes were the men and women who fought in that faraway jungle and who died or who came home wounded or emotionally scarred to a nation that greeted them with indifference—if not outright derision.

I never went to Vietnam. Troops were streaming out, not going in, when I began active duty. I was just a weapons control officer doing what I thought I needed to do, happy to begin my civilian career once I’d served my four-year commitment.

Actually, in what I suppose is the closest I ever came to heroism, I gave Uncle Sam four extra days.

How radically things have changed.

Now soldiers and officers wearing their uniforms in public receive thanks from strangers for their service.

They deserve it. Military service nowadays is excruciating—and not only because of the frequency with which men and women must confront the horrors of combat. Deployments are long and extendable. Military families face extraordinary pressures—life-and-death risk of the military member, uncertain periods of separation, low pay.

They do deserve our thanks.

I’m very pleased they’re receiving it. I’m equally pleased that this reversal of the military’s public image has evoked gratitude for the real heroes of Vietnam.

That’s the transformation of image I mentioned earlier. And it’s the psychology of that change that I want to explore here.

My memory of that B-52 pilot will help.

I didn’t catch his name and wouldn’t remember it now if I had. He appeared on a TV news program during my first year on active duty.

He stood on a flight line in front of a television camera—in Thailand, probably—this focus of popular scorn, wearing his blue garrison cap the cocky way pilots do, in a flight suit the color of shadowed foliage.

The reporter asked a few dare-you-to-answer questions about the unpopular war and the pilot’s role in it. So this guy, a major as I recall, looked at the camera and coolly said something I’ll never forget:

“If you want us to stand down,” he said, “just tell us.”

That challenge put the image of the military, which I’m corresponding with antagonism toward the Vietnam War and comparing with the contemporary image of oil and gas, into very useful perspective.

Americans elect their military’s commander-in-chief.

Despite all the antiwar toxin that infested popular discourse in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans could have elected an antiwar president.

They had the chance to do so when Richard Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey for the presidency in 1968. Humphrey wasn’t the shrillest antiwar Democrat around at the time; he’d been vice-president in the administration of Lyndon Johnson and refused to repudiate Johnson’s escalation of the war. Still, for voters who despised the war and the military, Humphrey was the clear preference over hawkish Richard Nixon.

Yet Nixon won, 301 electoral votes to 191.

By the election of 1972, the choice was more clear-cut: Nixon versus an outspokenly antiwar senator from South Dakota, George McGovern.

Again, Nixon won, 520 electoral votes to 17. He received 18 million popular votes more than McGovern, the widest margin in history.

Americans might not have liked what that B-52 pilot wore to work, how short he kept his hair, and what he did for a living in Vietnam. But they could have stopped him from doing it by electing a commander-in-chief committed to promptly ending the war. They did not.

Public image about the Vietnam War and the military of the day conflicted with public action on those subjects—at least as expressed by votes in two important elections.

Public image about anything has its roots in the shifting sands of popular opinion. Action has roots in firmer, more-complex psychological ground, which includes but isn’t limited to core beliefs.

Opinions change readily; core beliefs change begrudgingly. Of the two, opinions are much more susceptible to manipulation. Within groups, even with individuals, harmony between opinions and core beliefs can be elusive, even difficult to achieve.

The public image of the United States military changed because opinions about it did what opinions so readily do—they changed. And I like to think those opinions are more closely aligned now than they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s with core American beliefs.

If there’s any hope for improvement of the oil and gas industry’s image in the public square, public opinions about the industry have to change.

As I said earlier, the oil and gas industry suffers in politics because so many Americans so passionately hate it.

If the industry’s image were not so poor, politicians would be laughed offstage when they made indefensible allegations—such as the perennial favorite that oil and gas companies conspire to gouge consumers at the gasoline pump.

A poor public image affects the workplace as well as politics. People who work in the industry must grow tired of continually having to shrug off unlearned yet unyielding suspicions expressed by relatives and friends who live outside petroliferous havens like Texas and Oklahoma. I know I do.

So what changed popular opinion about the military? And what might the oil and gas industry learn from that history?

During my adolescence and early adulthood, two variable circumstances inflamed antimilitary passions.

One was unpopularity of the Vietnam War, especially among activists and well-positioned elites of politics, academia, and the media.

But that circumstance doesn’t differ greatly from its counterpart today. The incursion to dethrone Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 was hugely unpopular—as unpopular, I’d venture to say, as the Vietnam War.

In both cases, war in a distant place aroused fierce opposition. Yet opposition to Vietnam led to demonization of the military, while opposition to Iraq did not.

The real differentiating circumstance, I believe, is the draft—a social force strongly at work in the Vietnam era and nonexistent today.

For young men in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, the draft limited choice. You took your chances in the annual lottery. You got a school or marriage deferment. You made the best of the inevitable—as I was fortunate enough to do—by attending college and entering military service as an officer. You moved to Canada, where the Draft Board couldn’t get you. Or you went underground and became a radical.

Those were the options. They didn’t leave room for much career planning.

Limiting choices available to young men by any means is a sure way to destabilize any society. A related observation, which I’ll mention in the interest of inclusivity, is that limiting the influence of women to anything below parity in all aspects of decision-making is a sure way to make the worst possibilities of male behavior come true.

Anyway, attached to an unpopular war, the limitation of choices available to young men through military conscription bred resentment. And the resentment helped to radicalize American politics and spoil the IMAGE of the American military.

Yet the military, as the B-52 pilot etched into my memory made clear, was only doing what Americans, through their political system, had told it resoundingly to do.

Opinion about the military and core beliefs about security and American values had been knocked out of alignment by truncation of individual choice via military conscription.

Improvement of the military’s public image required a reassertion of choice by way of an end to the draft.

By analogy, a reassertion of the EXISTENCE of choice can help the oil and gas industry improve its image—and at least its ability to defend itself against the worst political assaults it faces.

The war analog for oil and gas is the price of energy, especially the price of gasoline.
The politics of energy is motivated and shaped by the price of energy—especially gasoline.

People have opinions about all sorts of things related to energy—security, climate change, supposed threats to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing.

But people act on price. They buy energy on the basis of price. They vote—when options are clear—on the basis of price.

Price is more than a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of economic interest, which is a manifestation of core belief and therefore a prime mover of behavior—something over which people will wage intellectual war.

I think the fate of cap-and-trade legislation, proposed as an antidote to global warming early in the 211th Congress, supports my view. As effects of the proposal on the price of energy became clear, opinions increasingly conformed with economic interest, and political support for the measure melted away.

If the war analog in energy politics is price, the draft analog is domination of the vehicle fuel market by gasoline.

Americans feel conscripted to gasoline.

When gasoline prices reach uncomfortable levels, economists talk about limited elasticity of demand, and politicians compare the effect with taxation.

Convinced they have no choice, motorists revolt and open themselves to conspiracy theories promulgated by political heroes needing populist dragons to slay.

Yet choices exist. At the most basic level, motorists choose where to buy gasoline among retail outlets that clearly advertise prices.

Americans also can—and do—reduce consumption in times of elevated price. They increase their use of mass transit and reduce discretionary driving. Some of them trade in SUVs for less fuel-ravenous sedans. The effects take time, but they do moderate consumption.

In fact, consumption of gasoline—long the growth oil product in the United States—has flattened, maybe forever.

And another choice—a political choice to require sales of fuel made from biological feedstock—is trimming the need for gasoline made from crude oil. Grain ethanol now fills about ten percent of the US need for gasoline. And its use is growing.

Whether that represents sound policy is debatable. The point here is that it reflects a choice.

More such choices will present themselves in politics. I personally believe experience with renewable-energy mandates will force attention to the high costs of those programs. And as lessons become apparent and widely understood, economic interest will prevail.

But, again, these are choices. Americans are not drafted against their wills into vehicles fueled by gasoline originating wholly in crude oil.

Domination of the vehicle fuel market by gasoline is not a consumer trap. It doesn’t result from political coercion or industry manipulation.

Domination of the fuel market by gasoline is a legacy of choices based on the fuel’s physical and economic advantages related to energy density, mobility, and scale.

Those advantages are very difficult for other fuels to overcome. Other fuels cost more and can’t compete without subsidization by taxpayers or consumers and mandates like the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Subsidies impose cost, which conflicts with economic interest. And mandates represent a political choice that limits economic choice—a paradox some might see as related to core American belief.

The point here is that reminders about the choices that do exist on energy might help Americans understand that the price of gasoline is not a political war. It’s a choice.

If the reality of choice, including the historic choices that created present circumstances, gained prominence in political discussions, I believe the image of the oil and gas industry could be liberated from the intellectual warfare that frames debate now. Then—maybe—it could improve.

At this moment in the history of oil and gas, it’s more important than ever that the industry work toward this level of happy enlightenment.

The United States is entering a very promising era of oil and gas supply.

The newly recognized potential of unconventional resources, especially shales, other low-permeability formations, and reservoirs containing immobile heavy oil and bitumen, is reshaping the energy future of North America. It’s reshaping views about American reliance on oil from abroad. And it’s promising abundant, long-term supplies of natural gas for use as a fuel for power generation and manufacturing, as a petrochemical feedstock, and as a vehicle fuel.

Realization of this enormous potential requires sound policy-making. I fear, though, that exaggerated alarm over hydraulic fracturing, the completion technique essential to establishing production from tight formations, puts us off to a bad start.

And I’m afraid misconceptions underlying that alarm will be difficult to change as long as the American public distrusts the oil and gas business. That’s why the industry’s image must improve. There’s more than ever at stake.

I’ve tried to show that reversal of a poor public image is possible; the military did it, after all. I’ve asserted, by comparison with changes in circumstances affecting the military, that a reaffirmation of choice is essential to changing the oil and gas industry’s image.

And I’ve hinted at elements of strategy: working to change baseless opinions, which are changeable, while illuminating elements of a stronger driver of behavior, economic interest, which is a dimension of core belief.

My linking of choice to a necessary effort to improve the oil and gas industry’s public image is something new, as far as I know. And if anyone were to consider it a good idea, a practical question to ask would be: Will anybody listen?

To answer that, I’ll revive another military memory. This one is about a sign on walls of many an officer’s club during my years on active duty.

It said: “The mission of the Air Force is to fly and to fight, and don’t you ever forget it.”

I like the pointed brevity. It strikes me as something the B-52 pilot might say. It makes me think the oil and gas industry could be more pointed that it is now in its communication with the American public.

How’s this for a pointedly brief statement about the oil and gas industry’s purpose?

“The mission of the oil and gas business is to deliver energy you need at a price you can afford in the amounts you require.”

By reflex, somebody will want to add something about environmental responsibility. But whoever wrote that officer’s club statement didn’t feel obliged to say “to fly without crashing and to fight without getting shot down.”

I’m concerned with essential purpose here. Safety and environmental responsibility are imperatives of work and therefore implicit in mission, in a statement of which they should require no mention.

At the most fundamental level, the distinguishing purpose of the oil and gas industry IS to deliver AFFORDABLE energy IN NEEDED QUANTITY.

That essential emphasis on scale of the challenge leads me to one more hitherto untested suggestion I’ll make about ways to improve image.

A huge industry should figure out how to make size work for rather than against itself.

A big reason people unfamiliar with the oil and gas industry distrust the oil and gas industry is that the oil and gas industry is so confoundedly large.

It has to be big. The requirements of a world growing in population and industrialization are huge—and growing.

That world will continue to need all the oil and gas that can be brought affordably to market—and all the coal, nuclear, and renewable energy that can be delivered economically as well.

Because the already huge oil and gas business must get bigger, suspicion about the industry related to its enormity can only deepen unless something changes.

So here’s another observation from outside the canon of oil and gas communication with the public: The size of the oil and gas industry is a manifestation of the IMPORTANCE of the oil and gas industry.

Oil and gas together account for just less than sixty percent of the global energy market—a very large market destined to become larger. Oil and gas together will lose share over time. But requirements for them in absolute terms will continue to grow.

That unpopular but unassailable reality makes the industry that produces, processes, and delivers oil and gas extremely important.

And that makes work of the people in that industry—your work—extremely important. It’s work related to human welfare, mobility, and security. It’s work too frequently disparaged—like military service was in the era of Vietnam.

That—must—change. The image of the oil and gas industry has to improve.

At the dawn of the age of unconventional oil and gas, the industry has to be willing to emphasize choice and to express choice clearly and directly in the context of the importance of the work—like that B-52 pilot did so many years ago.

The industry has to be willing to look at the American public through television cameras and say: If you don’t want affordable energy that’s available in the amount you need when you need it, buy the other kind. You have the choice. Just please don’t deprive other people of their right to choose something different.

We’ve entered an era of exciting new potential for the oil and gas industry, its workers, and its customers. We can fulfill the promise, which requires working to improve the industry’s image by highlighting choice and asserting the world-scale importance of the work. Or we can assume image never changes and settle for chipping away at the edges of possibility.

That choice is ours.

Thank you.

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