Reframing Oil and Gas

By Iman Hill, IOGP Executive Director

Iman Hill, IOGP Executive Director

Some weeks ago, I published my first article on LinkedIn, not entirely sure how it would resonate. I am touched and encouraged by all your comments and, more importantly, by the level of engagement and passion.  My thanks to everyone who took the time to share their views.  I am not naive, one short article is no more than a drop in the ocean, but I trust that a diversity of thoughts only helps to amplify the truth and begins to quell the noise.

To understand how important this is, we just need to look at headlines and articles that have been published about our industry in the recent past.

“Oil and gas companies committing to net zero emissions? It’s a sham”. – The Guardian 2021

“How oil companies ruined the planet and saddled earthlings with the bill” – Mic.com 2021

“Big Oil’s Slippery Strategies for a Greener Future” – Wall Street Journal 2020

“It’s unavoidable: we must ban fossil fuels to save our planet.” – The Guardian 2021

“Big Oil’s Evil, Stupid Plan to Drown the World in Plastic” – New Republic 2020

 And on and on it goes!

Sure, media is a business, and punchy headlines help to attract readers.  And deadlines are an issue as well, I get that.  Still, I don’t believe that this is an excuse for the overall lack of accuracy that we are witnessing.

And if only it was about lack of accuracy.  The key issue is how our industry is being framed, not only by some media.  The way information is presented is at least as important as the information itself.  It’s difficult to resist the appeal of simple answers to complex questions.  Isn’t it nice to be told what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad, clear guidance on what position to take to stand on the right side of history?  Well, for the energy sector, things seem to be obvious: oil and gas are bad.  Hydrocarbons are not referred to as reliable, affordable natural resources; they are framed as dirty fossil fuels.  Old.  Outdated.  Dead. In these same narratives, there is a group often presented as the direct opponent to the oil and gas industry – Environmentalists, who, according to this narrative and by their very name, are the sole legitimate protectors of the environment.  As the story is told, it appears inconceivable that the oil and gas industry could care about the environment, too or that there are many Environmentalists working in the oil and gas industry making a positive difference, protecting species and ecosystems every day.  Hats off – critics of the oil and gas industry are doing a great job with framing.

Why should we care about what others think?  Because public perception has the power to drive policies and political agendas.  There is nothing wrong with that; this is how democracy works.  However, if public perception is shaped by unbalanced and distorted framing, there are bound to be adverse outcomes, not only for our industry, but for society.

We’ve all seen the rhetoric and calls for banning the very technologies that will help the world to make step changes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. CCS), or the voices shouting for natural gas to be excluded from the European Green Deal. Natural gas is the reliable partner to renewable energy. It will remain part of the energy mix for years to come. Personally, I can’t quite get my head around this rhetoric, it seems at the very least, short sighted, at worst dangerous, particularly when considering energy security and reliability.

Decisions that are not supported by facts or science almost certainly will come with unintended consequences, such as increasing dependence on energy imports and/or an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Taking the U.K. as an example and according to the recently announced North Sea Transition Deal which permits new exploration licences and production approvals in exchange for improved emissions performance; UK Continental Shelf production is declining but still meets 67% of UK energy consumption which saves a country that already has a significant trade deficit a large energy import bill.  These production operations support over 300,000 jobs, and the families that go with them, and works to very high health, safety and environmental standards which the industry continues to improve consistently and consciously. These decisions, once taken, are extremely difficult to reverse.  Infrastructure, once abandoned, will be costly to reactivate.  Lost jobs and expertise may never be rebuilt.  Investments that are redirected are hard to attract back.

Demonizing oil and gas may be bad for the developed world, for those in developing countries, the results could be devastating.  I mentioned it in my previous posting, but let’s be very clear, almost 800 million people – roughly as many people as the entire European population – are living without access to electricity, and hundreds of millions more only have access to very limited or unreliable electricity.  Billions of people do not have access to clean cooking fuels.  Globally, five people enter the middle-income class, every single second. This means increased consumerism, increased mobility and a more comfortable standard of living, which comes with associated, significantly increased, energy expectations. This is only going to become more challenging with a growing global population.

If it were possible to meet this demand with carbon-free, renewable energy sources in a reliable and affordable manner, that would be the preferred choice.  However, for the foreseeable future, this is simply not going to happen. The truth is, huge investments in oil and gas will still be required for quite a while to outweigh the average annual production decline of 7-8 percent.  Who can sensibly argue against the fact that natural gas (including LNG) will play the key role in the energy transitions of regions such as Asia Pacific and Africa?

Producing sufficient energy to meet the world’s needs is a responsibility that the industry takes very seriously, and we understand that things are not as simple as some critics may portray.  There are many shades of grey, many issues to debate that sit somewhere between right and wrong.

It is up to us – with help, I hope, from responsible journalism – to reframe the role of oil and gas in this century.  Our industry has a great story to tell.  Our next conversation will be about our industry’s contribution to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and how our industry is contributing to them – most, directly and all of them indirectly.

I am looking forward to hearing from you on this post.

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