Industry adds more voices to gas debate

No longer content to be passive observers of the debate, some of the largest oil companies in the U.S. have begun mounting their own, more forceful defense against criticism of the boom in natural gas development.

Earlier this month, Houston-based ConocoPhillips became the latest to join the fray, with word it will launch a national advertising campaign to tout the benefits of natural gas as a clean-burning fuel that can reduce dependence on foreign energy sources and create U.S. jobs.

It followed Exxon Mobil Corp., the nation’s largest gas producer, which started a similar ad campaign in June, along with a website to answer questions about natural gas drilling and the controversial extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Executives with Chevron Corp., Shell and others also have been making the case more in public forums.

“We need to directly address the public’s perception on natural gas and hydraulic fracturing as companies and as an industry,” ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva urged in a speech in Detroit recently. “We need to speak more directly to the public’s perceptions.”

The stepped-up efforts come as skepticism grows about the safety and environmental impact of natural gas development and amid a significant uptick in that activity in shale rock formations from Texas to Pennsylvania.

Critics charge that drilling and extracting oil and natural gas from shales and other dense rock formations pollute the air, scar the land and threaten groundwater supplies.

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group in Washington, said the campaigns show oil and gas companies understand the public is concerned.

“But I don’t think these tactics are going to make people feel more comfortable,” she said.

A communication issue

Industry leaders say what could be a 100-year supply of natural gas in U.S. shales can be extracted safely and is vital to the nation’s energy future. But they acknowledge that the industry has not always done a good job of communicating that to the public.

“Industry is in a position of recognizing that more information needs to be out there, and we have a role in that,” Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co., the Houston-based arm of Europe’s Royal Dutch Shell, said in a recent interview. “We are the operators. We are the ones that know explicitly how this is done.”

Stressing clean, cheap

ConocoPhillips’ tele­vision and Internet advertising campaign, which it calls  Power in Cooperation, seeks to dispel public concerns about natural gas extraction methods and describes gas as among the cleanest and cheapest ways to generate electricity.

Exxon Mobil ran full-page newspaper ads earlier this year that called natural gas “an amazing resource for Americans” and said hydraulic fracturing is a “responsible way to produce it.” And the Irving-based oil giant said it launched a natural gas website in June as “people are seeking more information about how this resource is being produced.”

That same month, Shell released a pamphlet with a set of principles for safe operations in shales and other tight gas formations it said could be a template for the broader industry.

Other companies also have talked about the need to corral thousands of operators behind best practices, which if adopted could reduce the risk of accidents and perhaps stave off one-size-fits-all federal regulations.

“What is clear is that we have to have everyone operating at a high standard,” Chevron Corp. CEO John Watson said during a recent visit month to Houston.

Beyond its trade group

The oil and gas industry typically has let its trade groups take the lead in addressing hot topics. The heightened engagement by some of the largest producers underscores how much is at stake in the natural gas debate.

Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying group, said the new campaigns should not be seen as a break with API, but rather as a sign of the “all-hands-on-deck” approach the industry is using to educate the public on the benefits of natural gas.

Daniel Whitten, with the America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said the industry group welcomes “all voices that advance a fact-based conversation about our operations and the measures we take every day to inform people about the safety of our work, and the benefits the natural gas community brings to shale regions across the country in the form of jobs and local economic growth.”