The Challenge of Public Perception

For petroleum engineers, it is aggravating to hear negative comments about the oil and gas industry, often by people who don’t understand the industry or get the facts wrong.

“I was asked about this whenever I spoke,” said Janeen Judah SPE, 2017 SPE President, recalling how members were unsure how to respond to negative or inaccurate claims. She agreed that it is disappointing to hear the work you are proud of misrepresented, and misconceptions can lead to bad policies. For example, those who assume that a transition from oil and gas to wind and solar will take just a few years rather than decades are also likely to oppose government policies that will allow for the exploration and production required to meet global energy demand.

Adding to the challenge, managing public perception is not something that petroleum engineers learn in college. Engineers are likely to struggle to understand a thought process that seems illogical and subjective.

Understanding how opinions are formed, and changed, requires dealing with the fact that the workings of our brains—including those of engineers—are influenced by logic, but the thought process also brings many other things into the equation to arrive at what may seem like a logical conclusion.

“A few years ago I thought it was 80% facts and reasoning and 20% gut reaction. Now I think we are the other way around,” said Lyn Arscott, SPE president in 1988. He realized that things are not always what they seem after reading about the growing body of psychological research concluding that the way people evaluate facts, or even decide what are the facts, is based on many considerations—strongly held beliefs, a sense of justice and safety, rules of thumb, and group norms. A phrase often used in this discussion: things are complicated.

It is not that the general public is made up of people who are not logical thinkers. But there are also automatic thinking processes in our brain that evolved to help people make quick decisions in a dangerous world.

“Psychology might not be a traditional subject for JPT but it is essential that engineers understand what makes people tick,” Arscott said. That understanding can help explain why “it is not enough to make a case going ‘point one and two and three and four and this is what you do,’” he said.

This realization helped him answer a question that bothered him during his long career in oil and gas: “Why don’t they love us?”

Shifting Expectations

Arscott is proud of how the industry reduced its environmental impact in the decades after he shifted from working in production to working in a health, safety, and environment (HSE) position. He helped drive Chevron’s first push to comply with then-new oil and water pollution regulations.

“Slowly we realized we did not have to sacrifice the environment. We had to literally change the culture. I am so proud we are there. There are pockets of resistance, but we are there,” Arscott said.

But that feeling is not shared by the 1,200 people surveyed by Ernst & Young (EY) about their perceptions of the oil and gas business (Fig. 1). More than half of the teenagers responding in that sample concluded that the oil and gas produced today is “not worth the impact on the environment.” That survey also found that teens believe that wind and solar will be the energy sources of choice for their generation.

Fig. 1­—In the survey, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement regarding the oil and gas industry.


This is an example of how aspirations and reality can differ. Wind and solar now supply just a fraction, for example, of US energy demand, and major technology advances will be required to make electric cars an affordable option for those teens by the time they reach age 30.

The adults surveyed—those 19 and older—were less strident. Still, 41% of them said the industry is “not worth its impact,” and 68% described it as a “polluter.”

Expectations change with time. Ideas such as environmentalism and climate change did not exist when Arscott got into the industry in the early 1960s. Back then “we thought plastic was the savior of mankind. Now we think, what a mess we have got. What are we doing to do about it?” he said.

Rachel Everaard, a US oil and gas partner at EY, said a high percentage of oil company executives surveyed acknowledged that they need to do a better job of communicating what they do and why it is important. The industry needs to publicize the technological advances that have allowed it to produce oil and gas from spots where it was once impossible, she said.

“Traditionally, oil companies do not share a lot of information (about E&P advances). They are closed-mouth, understandably, where there are some aspects that are confidential for IP reasons. But there is a level where they could be sharing more,” Everaard said.

Industry image plays a large role in recruiting top talent, she said. Of the teenagers polled by EY, only 36% of them said the oil industry “cares for its employees,” and only 41% of them described it as innovative. Pure technology companies ranked higher in the survey among teens. Oil companies seeking data experts “are not competing with other oil and gas companies, they are competing with high tech companies for talent,” Everaard said.

Since that survey was published in 2017, more oil companies are using social media and video to reach a larger audience, including teens who reported feeling “overlooked,” she said.

Points of View

The industry’s desire to stay out of the news has “allowed other people to misrepresent us using incorrect data,” said Behrooz Fattahi, who was 2010 SPE President. “We have to confront this with explanations and with science and back it up with a lot of effort.”

Critics of the oil business are good at making a powerful impression, even on oil executives. EY surveyed 109 executives, who predicted that only 24% of the people surveyed would say they trusted their business, while the actual total was 46%.

The average reflects high grades for the industry by consumers for dependably delivering energy (80%) that they recognize is a valuable service (79%). The average would have been higher if the industry was selling only natural gas. Consumer feeling about cleaner-burning gas is well above oil and not that far below wind and solar.

It may not be worth agonizing over whether people trust their employer. Many people find it hard to trust industrial giants. Oil’s score on trust was equal to the grade for health care, and well above the numbers for investment bankers and drug companies (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2­—In the survey, respondents were asked whether they had a positive or negative perception of each industry.


Can the oil business change people’s perceptions? One person who argues that is possible is author Alex Epstein, who has built a growing speaking and consulting business based on the message in his book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

“People in industry and government complain that people are so irrational. No one will listen to reason. Everyone is super emotional. I do not think that is the right analysis,” Epstein said in an online video on his methods. His online speech highlights his techniques for responding to critics, which apply lessons from behavioral psychology.

One lesson is that it is possible to change someone’s perception by reframing an issue. Rather than asking a skeptic, do you support oil use? you could ask whether society should use energy sources that are abundant, reliable, affordable, and safe. Overall, be sure the industry critic is being even-handed.

“Really focus on the framework of it—framework first and then facts,” Epstein said in the speech to an oil industry audience. “If you allow (opponents) to use a pre-existing framework, that will be chaos. They will be self-righteous and not listen to you.”

SPE’s Code of Conduct asks members to “consider the consequences of their work and societal issues pertinent to it and seek to extend public understanding of those relationships.” That is not always easy. Replicating Epstein’s well-rehearsed presentation and style might be tough, and some oil companies are guarded about when their employees can speak publicly about the business or particular issues.  

In addition, the level of detail an engineer might expect when describing the process of finding, drilling, and completing wells could overwhelm a nontechnical listener. A possible worst-case scenario would be an introverted engineer, who often works alone on advanced reservoir analysis, face to face with a strident environmental activist convinced that carbon emissions from fossil fuels will soon lead to a climate change apocalypse. That situation would challenge even expert communicators.

Interpersonal skills have been a concern for Fattahi since he made “soft skills” development a priority when he was SPE president. Last year, as an SPE Distinguished Lecturer, he told engineers that they need to work on interpersonal competencies. To get ahead, they must study how to work effectively in teams made up of people from different backgrounds, points of view, and temperaments.

People who work in the oil and gas industry often get questions from the public about things they have heard about the oil business in the news, such as an oil spill, and they may not value the industry because of a limited perspective.

Fattahi reminds consumers of their role in creating the emissions they sometimes blame on oil com­panies by asking, If you need a loaf of bread, will you be walking to the store or driving?

Difficult Conversations

While living in California, Judah recalled, “If you wore a shirt with a Chevron logo to the airport, there were people who would light into you.”

While the EY survey found a large number of people who would not like the oil and gas business in their back yard, they also found people who see the environmental risks of continued oil production in such stark terms that they view it as a moral issue. And on the other side, there are people who argue that global warming is an iffy theory whose potential consequences are likely exaggerated.

Climate change and hydraulic fracturing are among the issues that have become flashpoints for difficult conversations between people with diametrically opposed points of view. What makes these disputes different is the uncompromising attitudes of those involved, which Peter T. Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, described as, “Our side is clearly right and your side is clearly deranged.”

To study these types of conflicts, Coleman created the Difficult Conversations Laboratory, where observers have watched hundreds of conversations between people on opposite sides of seemingly intractable issues. The goal is to find ways to promote productive dialogue in these stressful meetings.

Participants on opposite sides of a controversial issue are told to spend 20 minutes working together to prepare a statement on what they agree about (Fig. 3). Successful sessions require people to be curious about the other person and how he or she arrived at their views, the ability to see the ­complexity of the problem, and the patience to keep talking though aggravating moments. These conversations may cause a person to reconsider assumptions made but never carefully examined, Coleman said.

Fig. 3—These charts track the emotions experienced by a person having a difficult conversation with another person. The cluttered chart (left) shows a complex range of emotional swings. The plain chart (right) shows a conversation stuck in negative sentiments. Source: Peter Coleman/Columbia University.


In a failed session, the conversation may end before the allotted time is up because the participants could not find anything to agree on. “If they go and make a conventional argument for their side, it sets them up defensively,” Coleman said. “They are protecting the issue by advocating strongly.” If the parties stick to those stances, it is likely to lead to a stalemate leaving both parties feeling frustration and anger, he said.

A good session is not likely to change someone’s position on an issue, but they are likely to see the person on the other side differently. “They understand some things about the other person. It is not a sort of solution. It is a process. They feel respect. They would like to continue the conversation because they feel it is worthwhile,”
Coleman said.

Meetings are more productive when both sides realize that issues are “highly complicated. They are not the simple thing that the media reduces them to,” Coleman said.

Research shows that participants are more likely to be productive if they first read a description of the issue showing that it is complicated, such as a research paper that looks at a problem from multiple angles. When the same facts are presented as just pro vs. con, like a news story, each person tends “to pay attention to what supports their argument and little attention to the other side.”

Coleman offers two tips for difficult conversations: remember that “none of us have (all) the answers,” and working out problems “takes more time than you think.”

Perceptions Matter

Ernst and Young described the public’s perception of the energy business as “respectable but precarious.” Consumers see that it fills a big need but question its record on the environment and other issues that could affect its ability to:

  • Recruit and retain talent
  • Raise capital
  • Develop projects
  • Influence tax and regulation
  • Maintain its long-term viability

Source: Ernst and Young.

It is Complicated

The future of zero-emission vehicles depends on developing massive, low-cost sources of lithium to make the batteries to power them.

David Burnett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University, recently completed a consulting project investigating the environmental impact of developing a lithium mining operation in Nevada. There is clearly a lot of lithium there, but extracting it will require a lot of fresh water, which is scarce in that arid place.

The push to mine more lithium, among other minerals, as part of the big transition to cleaner fuels shows that even “clean energy” can come with a sizable environmental footprint. This highlights a problem also faced by logical thinkers in the oil business. What seems like the best option is narrowly defined by the problem at hand.

“As an engineer, I want to solve this problem. Let’s narrow it down to a very narrow, defined goal,” Burnett said. For a miner, he said, that could be: “Lithium batteries are good for cars that reduce emissions and all of that.”  

Lithium mining, like oil and gas, could create jobs and provide needed energy but the public perception in both cases is also likely to be shaped by the environmental impact of the mine.

There is always a “but.” Anyone selling an oil project needs to assume that local residents might be looking for the downside of a project in their backyard. Even in Texas. The days have passed when an oil company promising to bring in money and jobs to an area can assume they will be welcomed, said Marian Higgins, who measured the value of community engagement by an energy project developer for a PhD research project at the Texas A&M University’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management.

“In the past, a deal could be worked out behind closed doors with local powers, the permits were issued, and then the company announced, ‘Look what we can do for you.’ Now companies have to defend their decisions, and there will be somebody who has a problem with it,” said Higgins, who presented a paper (SPE 191739) on project communications at the 2018 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition.

The SPE paper, co-written by Burnett, included a case study of a pipeline company that pushed ahead with construction in west Texas without reaching out to landowners first. The result was years of litigation that delayed work and cost millions of dollars.

Talking to the community about a project before it begins is critical. Higgins said her research found that before companies briefed people in the community, “favorable or unfavorable views were based mostly on preconceived notions of potential effects ­rather than factual data.”

The paper also discussed a project in Matagorda, a small Texas coastal town with a long history of energy development. It has oil wells going back a century and a large nuclear plant. After local opposition helped block construction of a coal-fired power plant, she studied why that project failed. Her conclusion was that the developers magnified the opposition by announcing the plan without first consulting local residents and finding ways to address their  concerns.

Higgins, whose background includes psychology and environmental science, created a test based on a hypothetical project to generate power using low-temperature geothermal. She tested local citizens before and after they read a presentation covering the potential economic and environmental impact. A comparison of the two studies indicated that public opinion moved from “highly unsure” to “a little more on the positive side.”

That was short of clinching the deal, but it suggests that there is value in reaching out to the community to understand how it sees the oil and gas industry.

“You have to understand that in the tech world, one plus one is always two. In the peoples’ world, one plus one is not always two. It can be or not,” Fattahi said.

The Challenge of Public Perception

Stephen Rassenfoss, JPT Emerging Technology Senior Editor

01 March 2019

Volume: 71 | Issue: 3

No editorial available



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