Fossil Fuel's PR Problem – It’s the pollution stupid


Jonah natural gas field, upper Green River valley, Wyoming

John Amos

Many people think that oil and gas drilling is dirty. This isn’t that surprising – it is – but it’s worrying some folks in the drilling industry.

Beltway trade pub Energywire has a great article on the oil and gas industry wrestling with their image. Unsurprisingly, the blame for their woes falls not on their shoulders, but on the mean ol’ environmentalists that say mean things about them.

"Environmental organizations and others fighting new drilling have prevailed at winning people to their side, said Jon Haubert, communications manager for Western Energy Alliance, a trade group for independent oil and natural gas production companies.

'They are incredibly effective,' Haubert said of opponents. 'Whether you agree with what they are saying, or if they're not telling the truth or not, if they're not using facts, it's irrelevant.'"

Clearly, Big Green is behind all of the industry’s woes – certainly not fracking related pollution, rampant air pollution, or, you know, that whole Deepwater Horizon thing…

The oil and gas industry doesn’t have an image problem – it has a pollution problem.

Stories about flaming faucets and oil company bag men intimidating landowners aren’t the fault of environmentalists attacking drillers – those are the fault of the industry itself. The impacts of oil and gas drilling – especially hydraulic fracturing – are heavy. Even places that are looked at as success stories like the Bakken region in North Dakota have their problems.

Meanwhile, things that people do like – clean water, clean air, and unpolluted wild lands – aren’t part of the oil industry agenda. Popular hiking trails in Pennsylvania are at risk from fracking; in Montana and North Dakota, traditional hunting opportunities are being shoved aside for oil drilling. Activities and resources that people appreciate are being destroyed by drilling, and the industry wonders why more people don’t like them.

The industry has tried to win the PR battle before – the American Petroleum Institute ran a $100 million ad campaign during the 2012 election. That’s more than the entire budget for many environmental groups, and that was just a side gig for the oil and gas industry. Shell Oil’s “Let’s Go” ad campaign was quickly and brilliantly spoofed by Greenpeace, who continues to mock Shell’s attempts to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean (which is still a terrible idea).

But the pollution problem remains. Nowhere in the Energywire story was there a suggestion that the oil and gas industry take more steps to prevent oil spills, or safeguard drinking water, or take steps to lower air pollution near drilling rigs. Until they address the root causes of why people don’t trust them, all the ad campaigns in the world won’t fix their image.

To paraphrase James Carville: It’s the pollution stupid.