Don’t Kill the Chickens, Build Community Consensus

Source: Getty Images.
We should be known by the public as an industry that has an impeccable safety culture.

What is that smell?!

As a small boy, after doing the chores on one sunny summer day, I was happy to have a farm to run around on with lots of distractions. Life was grand, and the farm was my oyster.

Suddenly, there was this awful smell like rotten eggs wafting from the field. The nearby drilling rig was in operation but something unexpected had happened, and the crew was reacting to the situation. Dad was not sure what to do but was quite concerned about his 5,000 chickens. Chickens, like canaries in coal mines, are quite fragile when it comes to gases in the air. There was no way he could isolate the barn from the smell, so he gathered up the family and, similar to what you would do in a prairie storm, we went to the safest place in the farmhouse to wait it out: the basement.

Now, most of you reading this story know exactly what was going on, and—as I am still alive to relay the story—the worst case did not occur. Not a single chicken died, and more importantly, not a single member of the Spady farm family succumbed to the killer hydrogen sulfide gases gathering in the low spots, such as the basement.

Not much was ever said about the incident, and I am not sure if Dad ever followed up with the company man on the rig. We were pretty happy to have the novelty of a drilling rig on our farm, and benefited from the surface payments (royalty in Alberta at the time, as now, was generally held by the government). When I grew up it was a normal sight to see large piles of bright yellow sulfur byproduct at nearby gas plants awaiting shipment for agricultural use. This was all part of the new and exciting world of oil and gas that was eclipsing agriculture as the new provider of local jobs. I still drive the farm equipment around that old wellhead when I help with the crop seeding and harvesting. We have co-existed quite nicely for 50 years.

As I enter my presidency, I have formulated five goals for the year, and this month’s column will focus on the importance of local community consensus. I spent this past year looking at our industry to decide where I would like to focus my year as president, and my columns will each touch on one of these objectives. I outlined them in more detail in my JPT question and answer column last month, but briefly, they are:

  • Revisit the SPE strategic plan, which has not been updated in 5 years.
  • Promote the importance of heavy oil technology. Heavy oil is in need of a few champions, and I want to be one of them.
  • Increase awareness about the need for community consensus and corporate social responsibility.
  • Ensure that SPE’s new sections and remote-area sections receive the same quality of programs and services that the larger, better-established sections receive.
  • Represent and support the independent and small producers around the world. Their innovation, sometimes created from desperation, is critical for a well-rounded society.

As I mentioned above, my Dad did not inquire into that gas release; however, today our communities are quite attuned to our operations. Two things are significantly different. First, safety standards, monitoring, and community emergency procedures have developed to a sophisticated level that I hope never puts one single chicken in jeopardy—nor a stream or a family farm. If an incident like the one I described happened today, there would be a lot of people in big trouble and fines imposed all round. Second, communities in many parts of the world do not want anything to do with our industry or have our presence anywhere near them. In this column, I want to concentrate on the second scenario and preface it with this question: What has changed so dramatically?

We hear the term “social license” a lot, to the point at which an Internet search will produce a host of social license experts and practitioners. It has become a “thing to obtain or do” as opposed to a pure objective. We have created a new term that people can hide behind and debate endlessly. I believe that we need to take it to the broader level and rethink how we do our work and achieve community consensus. We may not be loved by all, but we are necessary and as such have to figure out a way to have overall community support or participation in creating the forms of energy that we use.

How do we do better as members of SPE? How do we conduct our necessary work in an environment that is skeptical? How do we earn back the trust of the public? Should we align with or support the regulators to enhance our image?

First, we need to start by making sure that we are good corporate citizens. That happens by being the best we can as SPE individuals, by ensuring the technical quality of our work would meet our own standards. That attitude should creep into our corporate structure, setting up the framework of corporate social responsibility. Good corporate citizenship starts with being good citizens. Good, conscientious, technically competent SPE members should be good citizens. That’s where we start.

Secondly, living our lives in the regions where we work ­really helps the public perception. We tend to group and hide in safe, corporate (or head) offices, rather than listening to the people who interact with our end product. We should be known by the public as an industry that has an impeccable safety culture combined with a desire to be good citizens of the planet. Sometimes we are.

In 2016, the Fort McMurray, Canada, forest fires dominated local news for the entire summer. Amazingly, the major news sources reported that a “culture of safety and taking evacuation orders” enabled nearly 90,000 people to evacuate, with not a single death directly tied to the evacuation process. We need a lot more stories such as this one that explains the good in our industry—with evidence to back us up.

Thirdly, how do we earn back the trust of the public? This will probably take a generation, or at least a decade. It can’t be bought or regulated. It must be earned, the slow way. Sorry, no easy answers. No list of rebuttals that will solve the problem and make everyone happy. We should not even engage in ­arguments. Who wants to listen to some technical geek tell them that they are wrong? Not me!

Lastly, do we align with or support our regulators overtly to enhance our image? In my opinion, no. As members of SPE, we want our people embedded in all parts of the energy cycle. We want to have competent members in the operating companies, the consulting firms, the service providers, the suppliers, and the regulators, including government. SPE does not endorse or take a public position as an organization, but I am very pleased to report that we have members in key positions of government and regulatory bodies all around the world.

We have come a long way as an industry since the story about the chickens. Our standards are among the highest of any industry, and safety statistics bear out an increasingly improving landscape. To add to this, we are relentlessly “driving to zero,” having a goal of no losses in whatever grouping that we measure our progress. This is amazing. We know it. ­Others don’t.

Fifty years ago, no chickens died in an accidental hydrogen sulfide gas release on a sunny summer day north of Calgary. That was luck.

Today, our goal is that no chickens (or any other critters) die on sunny summer days anywhere because of releases of ­hydrogen sulfide gas. This change was brought about because of new habits, tough standards, and accountable citizens working for companies with corporate social responsibility at the core of their existence. This constitutes a start in earning back the trust of the public.

I think I’m going to go have a chicken sandwich to prepare for the work ahead!

Don’t Kill the Chickens, Build Community Consensus

Darcy Spady, 2018 SPE President

01 November 2017

Volume: 69 | Issue: 11

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