Industry improves public perception through outreach, education

April 16, 2014
Public relations experts shared their thoughts on how the oil and gas industry can improve its image, and judges from two Texas counties spoke about concerns of residents in the Eagle Ford shale at Petroleum Connection's Clean Frac'ing Conference.

Rachael Seeley, Editor

HOUSTON — Public relations experts shared their thoughts on how the oil and gas industry can improve its image, and judges from two Texas counties spoke about concerns of residents in the Eagle Ford shale at Petroleum Connection's Clean Frac'ing Conference.

Gene Theodori, director of the Center for Rural Studies at Sam Houston State University, said polling data show oil and gas is the most negatively perceived industry in the US.

Theodori authored a study examining perceptions of the energy industry in the Barnett shale, in North Texas. It found that people living in areas near oil and gas development were more trusting of the industry than people who did not, suggesting that outreach efforts help foster a more positive view of the industry.

"In those counties where you are active people trust you more," Theodori said. "You're doing something right."

Youngsters got acquainted with industry equipment at Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.'s fourth annual community picnic held in Hartford County, Pa., last July. Photo courtesy of Cabot.

But Theodori said more work needs to be done. He encouraged industry to organize educational outreach programs and invite the public to rigs to see what is done at drillsites. "There is a gap between what you do and what you know you do and what folks think you do," he said.

Tailoring outreach

George Stark, spokesperson for Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., recommended tailoring outreach efforts to the audience.

Cabot, one of the largest producers in the Marcellus shale, finds it advantageous to use two communication strategies, one for communities where drilling and completion occur and another for communities removed from field operations.

People want to know how the industry personally affects them, Stark said. Those living near oil and gas development want to understand the equipment working in their communities and what happens downhole.

Conversely, Cabot has found it difficult to interest people living in areas far removed from development, like Pittsburgh and Scranton, Pa., in well design, but it has found that they are interested in how the oil and gas industry saves them money—for instance on electricity and heating bills.

"What they want to know is, ‘Oh, I'm saving $1,200/year,'" Stark said.

Cabot received an unprecedented, positive response to an annual picnic it began hosting in the Marcellus shale region 4 years ago.

A few hundred people were expected at the inaugural event, Stark said, and more than 2,500 people showed up. Attendance at the picnic in 2013 was more than 8,500.

The picnic is part of a larger effort by Cabot to engage with the public in a conversation about energy development.

Local perspective

A representative of McMullen County, Tex., in the heart of the Eagle Ford shale, spoke highly of outreach efforts by local operators.

County Judge James E. Teal said his county has benefited from industry support, such as donations to schools and playgrounds, and emphasized that residents have benefited from dialogue and information presented at town hall meetings.

More than 8,500 people attended Cabot's annual community picnic in Hartford County, Pa., last July. The event featured food, games, and music, as well as opportunities to interact with equipment, experts, and more than 60 industry vendors. Photo courtesy of Cabot.

By sharing information, Teal said, "You can just tear down those walls."

County Judge Daryl L. Fowler, of DeWitt County, Tex., said the industry is generally perceived well in his county. The biggest development-related concern facing residents is increased traffic and road degradation caused by heavy trucks servicing the shale play.

A study of the road system, released in June 2012, found the county's nearly 690 miles of paved and gravel roads are designed to handle a relatively low volume of local traffic consisting primarily of passenger vehicles and not the high volume of heavy vehicles servicing the Eagle Ford shale. The Road Damage Cost Allocation Study estimated the county needs $430 million to maintain and reconstruct county roads to meet the needs of the public, including the oil industry.

"The county road situation is showing incredible devastation," Fowler said. The study also found that some trucks working in the shale play are permitted by the state to weigh as much as 175,000 lb, a weight that, Fowler said, pulverizes gravel roads.

DeWitt County, the second biggest producer of oil and gas from the Eagle Ford shale, spent about $1.4 million maintaining roads and bridges in January 2014, slightly less than its entire road budget of $1.6 million in fiscal year 2003.

Fowler said road spending for fiscal year 2014 is expected to total about $16 million and account for 57% of the county's annual budget.

"The minute you fix the road it begins to decline all over again," he said. Fowler is looking to the state of Texas to allocate some of the funds collected from DeWitt County production taxes to repairing and maintaining the roads.

"We're friends of oil and gas down here, and always have been, but the state has got to awaken to the fact that there's no such thing as a free lunch," he said.

Flaring reductions

Robert Stewart, president of oil field service provider LIME Instruments, spoke on how the industry could address another challenge associated with development by reducing the flaring and venting of natural gas.

He pointed to data from the US Energy Information Administration showing that, in 2011, the US onshore flared or vented about 550 MMcfd of natural gas.

"We're able to produce a ton of gas, so much (energy) that we're not even able to use it all," Stewart said.

Gas flared or vented could instead be converted into CNG, Stewart said, and used to displace diesel to fuel rigs, pressure pumping equipment, and vehicles. The use of dual-fuel and bifuel equipment is gaining traction among operators like Cabot, which is increasingly using the technology in the Marcellus shale.

Stewart said low domestic gas prices and infrastructure constraints make it difficult to use all the gas that is produced, but flaring and venting provide ammunition for activist groups opposed to oil and gas development. By addressing the issue on its own, he said, the industry can reduce the prospect of more government regulations and remove fuel for opposition campaigns.