In November, two California counties, San Benito and Mendocino, added themselves to a growing list of local bans on hydraulic fracturing and in December, New York became the first to ban hydraulic fracturing throughout the entire state.
Commenting on this trend, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell agreed that the public is justifiably concerned about fracking, but, noted, “These local and regional bans on fracking are taking regulation of oil and gas recovery in the wrong direction. I think it’s going to be very difficult for industry to figure out what the rules are if different counties have different rules,” she said.
Certainly industry representatives agree with Jewell that the variety and complexity of requirements across constituencies make it difficult to do business, but many people, including some industry insiders, believe that the problems are of their own making. Early attempts to force drillers to disclose the composition of fracking fluids were met with resistance by companies like Halliburton who claimed proprietary concerns, and reports of increased seismic activity in normally quiet locales like Ohio were met with silence from drillers who said there could be no causal effect. But these tactics were considered evasive by residents and environmentalists, leading them to rally support which resulted in limits, increased regulation and/or total bans on hydraulic fracturing in many locales, with more being presented almost weekly.
Officials in Monterey County, California, are considering placing a fracking ban on the ballot in 2015 and the Los Angeles city attorney is drafting a moratorium for consideration by the city council.
All of this has spurred oil and gas executives to change the way they’re dealing with the controversy. Speakers at a recent North American Prospect Expo (NAPE) conference suggested the way was to rebalance the conversation on development of unconventional resources of oil and gas. One of the presenters, Charles Davidson, chairman of Noble Energy, said, “"We were slow to pick up on the public's concern about safety. There is a continually growing environmental challenge to development of unconventional oil & gas reserves. Left unmet, those challenges could have a significant long-term impact on unconventional energy development.
"What we found in Colorado is that you have to start by educating people," he continued. "Even though Colorado has a long history of significant energy production, there were relatively few people who knew we could operate without hurting the environment.”
Davidson told attendees at the conference that it’s important for companies and the exploration and drilling industry to ramp up spending on advertising and outreach. He cautioned that going silent means that the people begin filling in the blanks in ways that work against fracking.
Another speaker at NAPE, Steve Trippett, asset director for PDC Energy, told attendees his company was trying to be more proactive. "In Colorado and across the nation, we as an industry need to do a much better job educating the public,” he said. “What's not going to work is regularly facing ballot initiatives governing our ability to do business."
Drillers across the country have begun doing a better job of reaching out to the general public, but it is going to take time to gain its trust. It’s not just about advertising campaigns or town hall meetings; it’s about being up front and honest when engaging with all stakeholders. This is one of the most emotional environmental issues currently being dealt with across the U.S., and clouding the conversation with threats is counterproductive. Case in point: New York State Petroleum Council Executive Director Karen Moreau who said, "Today's action by Governor Cuomo shows that New York families, teachers, roads and good-paying jobs have lost out to political gamesmanship.”
Economic threats and political posturing are not effective tools in these emotionally charged situations. If the producers are serious about being perceived not as bullies but as partners in responsible development of national resources, they might also want to send a memo to some of their spokespeople to put a cap on the rhetoric.