Commentary: “Celebrities Against Fracking”? Please…

I check FuelFix every morning, and I’ve noticed that at the bottom or top of certain stories, there is sometimes posted other oil & gas content, sort of like a sidebar in a magazine only more interactive.  That content gets repeated every so often, and one piece that re-appeared for me was a slideshow of pictures entitled “Celebrities Against Fracking”.

I’d seen it in the past, before I started writing this column, and remember feeling really annoyed.  Now that I’m able to express my views more publicly, seeing those pictures the other day was actually a nice surprise:   this makes a great topic to write about, and I can finally air my frustrations and get some reader feedback!

You can see that set of pictures, as well as another celebrity contribution to the hydraulic fracturing discussion (a music video for the Sean Lennon song “Don’t Frack My Mother”), by clicking here.

Coming from someone who listens only to Top 40 radio – you can infer what you want from that – the song is terrible, but I’ll definitely grant that the video is a really good PR move, and kudos to Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono for getting so many celebrities involved, but…

Really?

Seriously?

We’re all entitled to speak our minds (as I’m about to do), but if we go out on a limb and put an opinion out there, we should be ready, able and qualified in some way to defend that point of view (as I’m also just about to do!).

Frankly, I don’t think the “Don’t Frack My Mother” crew can do that.

In a sea of valid facts and concerns coming from both the “pro” and “anti” hydraulic fracturing groups, I think we can all agree that in contrast celebrities provide the LEAST reliable frame of reference from which to carry on the discussion and create nothing but “noise” that prevents real progress from being made.

Like many people, I do appreciate and enjoy these stars’ work:  I had a lot of fun watching Mark Ruffalo play Bruce Banner in “The Avengers”, and Zooey Deschanel is really funny in “New Girl”.  Nevertheless, I do get upset when celebrities hi-jack a cause to which they have no connection in order seemingly to raise their own profiles, or because it’s the “cool”, “popular” thing to do.  The practice is self-serving, and in this case not only do I find that it disrespects the highly technical profession of oil & gas production, but I also feel that it highlights some considerable hypocrisy.

How so?

I like to think I’m a pretty smart person.  I’m not naturally brilliant, but I’ve worked hard, learned a lot as a result, and now I find that more often than not, when it comes to my own duties in oil & gas, I know what’s going on.   Still, I know I’m not nearly finished:  there are plenty of people out there who have more experience than I do, and it’s my obligation as a professional to continue learning as much as possible about this industry so I can do my job better.  Just like acting or singing, it’s a craft that takes a lifetime to understand and master!

Now, does being knowledgeable in oil & gas make me qualified to be a screen actor, or a big-time singer?

No.

I doubt those celebrities or their fans would take me seriously if I attempted to criticize their productions and talents, taking into account my lack of qualifications in their business.  That’s fair, and I’m ok with that:  after all, they worked really hard to hone their own crafts, took a risk to follow their dreams, and that all combined with a bit of luck to get them to where they are.

So why do they think they’re qualified to criticize the methods of an industry filled with people that have also spent years honing a totally different set of skills and knowledge?  Unless I missed something, Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono don’t have petroleum engineering degrees, much less any kind of experience working around a wellhead.

I’m absolutely not implying that we should just defer to the industry on everything just because it’s the primary store of technology and know-how, and I wrote as much a few weeks ago.  Nevertheless, for any dialogue to be constructive it should involve parties that are either directly involved in the issues, or have deep knowledge of them; most celebrities have no such knowledge, and are not directly, negatively affected by hydraulic fracturing.

Indeed, there are many people living in places like North Dakota, Pennsylvania and South Texas who are unhappy with and ARE affected by hydraulic fracturing, and have made that known.  We should ABSOLUTELY be engaging these people, since we work sometimes literally alongside them and their homes.  Even though many of them don’t have that technical experience or knowledge I brought up, it would be wrong of us to brush their concerns aside because of some assertion that “we know better”.

This is where the anti-hydraulic fracturing celebrity movement really loses credibility.  Unlike the people in Pennsylvania or South Texas who (again) are DIRECTLY impacted by hydraulic fracturing, I don’t think Liv Tyler has ever come that close to a frac crew in convoy to a well site, or experienced the consequences of a sudden population boom like the one places such as Williston, North Dakota are experiencing.

I also hear that the celebrity lifestyle is a good one, filled with big houses, fancy cars, and trips on airplanes all around the world.  How are those cars and airplanes powered?  Where does the power for all that home air-conditioning come from?  If it’s coal-generated electricity, rather than trying to “Sabotage” hydraulic fracturing, the Beastie Boys should be thankful for much cleaner burning natural gas!

Finally, all of this anti-hydraulic fracturing talk implies that it’s “us vs. them”, and that no one in the industry could possibly care as much about the environment (or even at all) as someone not involved in its operations.  This is of course completely untrue.   Personally, I drive my girlfriend crazy looking to recycle anything and everything that we both don’t need, and I’m neurotic about turning off lights in empty conference rooms around the office.  Judging from my colleagues’ similar behavior, I’m not the only one!  We’re like everyone else:  we try to do our best at work in order to provide for ourselves and our families, and in our downtime we enjoy the same things as everyone else, with the understanding that protecting the environment is a big part of being able to continue those walks in the park or trips to the beach.

Ultimately though, a message goes nowhere if no one is prepared to listen to it, and I can see how some of our messaging has not had the desired impact on moving the dialogue forward, while it seems in comparison that celebrity opinion does hold a lot of weight.

The oil & gas business, I believe, has had trouble communicating with the public for several reasons, but significantly it’s very difficult to convey a lot of the industry’s complexity, and how that complexity can actually contribute POSITIVELY to operational safety.  Furthermore, it’s ironic that frequently the people best trained to handle that complexity are also the least trained to communicate it.

I’m not saying that EVERY engineer has trouble speaking in anything but equations, but then again, when you’re trained to come up with proven, mathematical solutions and then rely on nothing but those, it can be hard to fathom that there are some very personal considerations at play, such as how your town might be affected by a sudden influx of oilfield workers.

This creates a big rift between the public and the industry:  on one hand you have oil & gas professionals, who see their studies as “the Truth”, and on the other hand you have the public that doesn’t have access to all of this data and the training to make sense of it, or you have people who sometimes have to live with the direct implications of that “Truth” near their homes.

So what are they to do?

If you’re an American not working in oil & gas, who are you going to believe?  Are you going to listen to the “big, bad”, anonymous people from the oil industry, or the celebrities that make you feel good and entertain you every weekend at the movies or while you listen to the radio on the way to work?

In a lot of ways, I get that decision:  as human beings with thoughts and emotions, it can be easy to skip the hard data in favor of more visceral reactions.  As an industry though, we really are trying to do a better job of communicating to people the responsible work that we do on a more personal level, and in fact that cause is a personal passion of mine, since that’s one of the big motivations behind me writing this column.

We realize that there are some risks involved in what we do, but we are always striving to put the best people to work on minimizing those risks (drinkable frac fluid, anyone?).  Here are some more data points for you to consider:  I have two friends from business school who now work for separate, quite large independent oil & gas operators.  One was in the Air Force for years, and the other went to West Point before becoming an Army Ranger.  At one point in their careers, their job was (and for one of them still is) exclusively to source and manage water for their particular fields, so I ask you this:  if they can be entrusted to risk themselves to protect this country’s interests, shouldn’t you be able to trust them with your water?

Unlike the people in that banner I linked to at the top, I think my friends would prefer to stay anonymous, but I’d take their view on the matter of hydraulic fracturing over Mark Ruffalo’s any day!

I believe that this industry can do even better when it is provided with informed feedback from the public.  We welcome anyone to this discussion, and there’s plenty of good material to get you going.  You can start by reading an editorial written by Ghanesh Thakur, the 2012 president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, and then tackle the extremely comprehensive paper George King put together which gives you a rundown of “Hydraulic Fracturing 101”.  You could then read about the huge production increases hydraulic fracturing has enabled, allowing us to import less oil from our sometimes volatile trade partners.

One last point before I leave you for this week:  remember the film Armageddon, in which Liv Tyler starred?

In that film, members of the oil & gas industry saved the world.