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In the public eye

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Oilfield Technology,

Chris Faulkner, Breitling Energy Corp., USA, explains why the biggest challenge facing the shale industry is not technology, but negative PR caused by a failure to relate to the public.

There is no shortage of exciting advancements in technologies to help find oil and gas, better access them, reduce the amount of water needed and treat the water used. Every advancement is fascinating in its own right and many will contribute to more environmentally-friendly production, but none of them is likely to turn the tide of public opinion in favour of the oil and gas industry.

The fact is, the overwhelming majority of scientific research has always landed on the industry’s side in the debate over the benefits of oil and gas production versus the environmental impact. See the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s ‘Impact of Marcellus Gas Drilling on Rural Drinking Water Supplies,’ the University of Texas’ ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development,’ the Texas Department of State Health Services ‘Final Report: Dish, Texas Exposure Investigation,’ William L. Ellsworth’s ‘Injection-Induced Earthquakes’ and Duke University’s ‘Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing,’ to name just a few.

While the best and brightest in the industry are clearly up to the challenge of finding better exploration, production and delivery methods, the industry has yet to demonstrate that it is up to the challenge of overcoming its own persistent and overwhelmingly negative reputation. The advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has only exacerbated the public debate, regardless of the clearly beneficial energy boom these advancements created.

If the science is on its side, why is the industry failing in its attempts to win hearts and minds? This article is one opinion about how and why the industry is losing the public relations battle and one modest example of how industry leaders might be able to begin winning the battle.

Advances are only half the challenge

It starts with (what else?), the technology, the methodology and the process. Like so many others in the industry, Breitling Energy Corporation sought to make drilling and production more environmentally-friendly and, in 2010, introduced the EnviroFrac™ programme, designed to evaluate the types of additives typically used in hydraulic fracturing to determine their necessity and environmental impact. Under the programme, any additive not critical to the successful completion of a well is eliminated, and Breitling works to find greener alternatives for all essential additives. To date, Breitling has eliminated 25% of the additives used in its shale play fracturing fluids.

Table 1 shows example components and their food-grade sources that have been added to the company’s fracturing fluids while eliminating 10 chemicals deemed potentially harmful.

Even additives such as pH-adjusting agents and chlorine-based sanitation aids that would be found in about the same concentration as a backyard swimming pool are evaluated for replacement with more environmentally friendly options under the programme. The programme is also used to work toward a 100% reuse or recycling of water used in fracturing to minimise water usage, and establishes simple guidelines for drill companies and vendors to ensure the safe and proper handling of chemicals.

 Component Food-grade-safe source 
 Enzyme Soybean paste 
 Exthoxylated sugar-based fatty acid ester Synthetic food flavouring substance 
 Inorganic acid Cheese and alcoholic beverages 
 Inorganic salt Food starch 
 Maltodextrin Sweetener and coconut milk 
 Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil Confectionary chocolate coating 
 Polysaccharide polymer Canned fish, processed cheese and butter 
 Sulfonated alcohol Egg white solids and marshmellows 
 Organic acid Fruit juice 
 Organic ester Liquid egg products 
Table 1. Oilfield chemicals and their food-grade sources.

Technology alone will not win this war

As praise-worthy as the industry’s efforts may be, they mean nothing in the anti-industry media vacuum. The industry may never win that battle. However, it may win the war by going directly to the people most affected by the operations.

The EnviroFrac programme is used as part of a larger Social License Initiative to increase public understanding and acceptance of fracturing operations.

For example, during the planning stages for horizontal wells in the Granite Wash sections of the Buffalo Wallow field in Hemphill County, Texas, Breitling and an operator partner began a community outreach programme to allay potential concerns over water availability and quality.

The region was experiencing the beginning of a severe drought that was hitting hard in this largely rural and heavily agricultural area. Because this was Texas, it would be possible to be complacent and go into a project expecting little to no opposition. But it would be a mistake to expect that the state’s more supportive regulatory environment translates automatically to a more supportive populace. Yes, some in the community were familiar with oil and gas operations, some were mineral rights owners, but many were not. And many had already made up their minds on ‘fracking’.

This was a few years ago, when the big backlash against the upstream oil and gas industry, specifically over hydraulic fracturing, was building. The release of the highly inflammatory and inaccurate documentary film Gasland was finding a warm reception in the media and among activist celebrities, who helped escalate the film’s impact and ensure that its trumped-up charges would help ignite an enduring antagonism with its images of flaming tap water. The nation was still learning more about the unfortunate fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with the media pouncing on every negative detail. And fracturing operations had produced a number of adverse health and environmental claims that were still playing out in courtrooms and communities.

This was causing industry representatives to adopt defensive postures, claiming proprietary privilege to withhold information and appearing to be dismissive of the various claims and real issues while relying on the tactic of touting a generally positive track record that no one outside the industry would believe. Worse were the commercial attempts at alleviating public fears with professional ad campaigns aimed at displaying industry’s sincere concern for the lives and environments it impacts, which fell flat in the face of the negative media onslaught.

Breitling felt it was time as a company and as an industry to stop congratulating itself for a good track record and to stop claiming ‘trade secrets’ as a defence against the anti-fracturing lobby. It was time to be proactive, not reactive, and to get in front of the people who mattered the most - the citizens of the towns where the company was drilling. It was the start of the company’s Social License Initiative to get community buy-in at all drill sites.

The Social License Initiative

Aside from the required licenses and permits an oil and gas operator must secure from regulatory bodies, there is another type of license needed: a social license. It is harder to get, and every bit as important. Each operation faces the risk of community rejection and it is not too much of a stretch to think that the entire oil and gas industry could be at stake if it cannot successfully mitigate the public’s concerns.

In implementing the Social License Initiative policy, the company did not rely on a big marketing budget with slick ads saturating the local media. The reasoning was two-fold: professional ad campaigns do not help people understand the industry or how it benefits them, there is also no wish to incite local activists to show up with the purpose of disrupting outreach efforts. The objective is not a debate in the local media. Rather, it is to look for a direct and honest discourse with members of the community.

The company invited all interested citizens to a town hall meeting by posting simple fliers and spending time chatting about the upcoming town hall meeting in local cafes, restaurants and grocery stores. Critical to the success of the company’s Social License Initiative was direct interaction with local citizens well in advance of any drilling activity, allowing the company time to genuinely and effectively address community concerns.

The town hall meeting held at a local hotel in Canadian, Texas provided Breitling and its partner a great opportunity to share information about drilling plans and how the EnviroFrac programme would help protect the community’s water supply.

Residents were mostly concerned about water acquisition and the chemicals that would be injected into the subsurface. Given the drought, water was the primary concern, followed by chemical additives in the fracturing fluids. Because the company had spent time in the community long before the town hall meeting, it was already well aware of these concerns and able to address them to the community’s satisfaction. Plans, efforts at eliminating harmful chemicals through the EnviroFrac programme and details of the operation from preparation through completion were shared, and every question was answered with full transparency.

In the end, both the wells were drilled and completed, without conflict or drama, and the company’s expectations for test results were exceeded. The Canadian, Texas town hall meeting became the model for the company’s Social License Initiative, which is now employed in every drilling community:

  • Engage early and personally.
  • Plan on and deliver full disclosure to all community stakeholders.
  • Define and create a plan for addressing every potentially negative outcome before opponents have a chance to whip up controversy on their own terms.

Social License imperative for industry

This was a small effort, by a couple of independent companies embarking on a two-well drill project. But what if? What if more companies used this type of social outreach approach along with every project, big or small? What if the industry quit relying on the whistles and bells of slick marketing campaigns and sent CEOs and other executives out into communities, armed with the plans and facts for each endeavour?

Breitling found that the simple act of a company CEO making themselves available for community meetings and Q&As went an astoundingly long way toward community buy-in and support. The company was left with the indelible impression that the very best tool in the pro-industry arsenal is one-on-one contact with the people in operational areas.

This is not to say that a media presence does not have its place. But, this is not necessarily in the form of pricey ad campaigns. Advertising is easy. Expensive, but easy. Companies do not have to get their hands dirty. They do not risk an uncomfortable question
in front of a large audience. They do not take the chance of being cast as the villain on tonight’s newscast. And they do not get their story told.

That is why Breitling’s approach has been to meet the challenge head-on. The company does not shy away from opportunities to take its story to the media, including debates and forums where it will be pitted against anti-industry activists in a format that favours them as altruistic defenders of the public good.

It is not always easy, but it is the only way the oil and gas industry can ever combat its own negative image. Armed with the facts and backed by decades of private, university and government studies, we have all the tools needed to tell the full story of the American oil and gas industry. We just have to be willing to get out there and do it.

Adapted by David Bizley

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