Barriers to Engagement: Why It Is Time for Oil and Gas to Get Serious About Public Communication

The challenges the industry faces are not only or even primarily technical—they have to do with how the industry sees and communicates with the public, and with demands from the public to have a voice in decision making. This article explores the barriers to engaging with the public.

conversation bubble made up of people

Jen Schneider participated in a panel discussion on community relations at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in San Antonio last year. She made an interesting presentation about barriers to engagement, a topic that was new to me.

I invited her to reprise her talk for this column and trust that you will find her insights engaging and enlightening.—Howard Duhon, GATE, Oil and Gas Facilities Editorial Board.

The oil and gas industry is no stranger to controversy. As with other hot button issues, how one views the industry is a good indicator of where one falls on the political spectrum.

From the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 to the Macondo blowout in 2010, the industry has had to face intense public scrutiny and develop effective communication and public relations strategies.

The ongoing struggle over hydrofracturing seems to be qualitatively different.  The challenges the industry faces in this case are not only or even primarily technical—they have to do with how the industry sees and communicates with the public, and with demands from the public to have a voice in decision making. 

Generally speaking, these demands are not being met.  Public resistance to hydrofracturing is proving significant in several areas in the United States and internationally, and may be a harbinger of things to come.  Most industry members I speak to voice tremendous frustration with public misunderstandings about fracturing.

But the problem is not only with the public.  The industry erects barriers to meaningful communication as well.  As the industry seeks to expand operations into areas of increasing political complexity or public resistance, understanding the barriers to meaningful public engagement becomes more essential.

Making meaningful public engagement happen is tricky.  A lot depends on context, a community’s previous experiences with extractive industries and its political allegiances, and the economics and leadership (or lack thereof) in a particular area.

Yet public engagement is becoming more necessary.  There was perhaps a time in science and technology policy making when the public, technical, and political spheres of decision making were distinct.  We often hearken back to a romanticized era—perhaps some time in the early Cold War—when engineers and scientists were in charge of the technical realms, politicians “did” politics, and the public accepted what it was told by authorities and experts. 

Things have changed—and probably never matched the romantic vision, anyway.  My experience working with engineers suggests that they would like the circle containing “technical” communication and decision making to be the most dominant.  They believe that more technical talk will lead to more understanding and agreement. 

This column suggests that this is a counterproductive belief.  We should instead be placing more emphasis on meaningful engagement in the public sphere.  It does not mean developing more sophisticated public relations campaigns; more spin will not solve the problem.  It does mean developing strategies for real dialogue and processes that encourage long-term relationships—allowing for conflict and contentiousness—between industry and affected communities.

There are many variables that go into the model of community engagement, and there will be trial and error, even with good, experienced people working on the ground.

However, there are four things the industry does have control over, and they have to do with its own worldviews and values, which may create barriers to engagement. 

Narrow Technical Focus

The first basic barrier to engagement stems from having a narrow technical focus.  Technical focus and specialization are good things, right?  They allow you to execute large, complex projects, to ensure quality control, and to manage large operations.  You would not hire a recent graduate who was not technically proficient.  At the same time, there are some significant disadvantages to privileging the technical above all else, as the industry (like most engineering fields) tends to do. 

First, it encourages technological lock-in early on.  Because the industry is operating in an incredibly competitive environment and is dominated by an engineering mind-set, early technologies that function well and are economic are quickly embraced and implemented.  Yet these are the very technologies that may create significant problems for the public or the environment down the road (with hydrofracturing, for example, the intensive water use by first-generation technologies has proven particularly problematic for many members of the public).

Perhaps things have to incrementally evolve in this way, but a technical mind-set tends to dig in and defend these technologies rather than remain agile and responsive to public and policy concerns.

Another problem with the narrow technical focus is that it encourages what marketing and business gurus and brothers Chip and Dan Heath called the “curse of knowledge.”  Put simply, once you—as an expert—understand something, it becomes very difficult to remember what it was like not to understand it.

 You have a clear model in your head of how shale is fractured, for example, and find yourself frustrated and angry with members of the public who think the hydrofracturing of rock at great depths could endanger water supplies.  If the public does not get that, you may be led to think that the public is ignorant.

The Deficit Model

This leads us to the second major barrier to engagement:  the deficit model.  When the industry predominantly views the public as uninformed, the industry is seeing the public in terms of having a deficit of information.  The cure? More science and technical education. More information. The reasoning goes like this:  The public thinks hydrofracturing is threatening water supplies.  It does not understand that, for the most part, this is incredibly unlikely.  If we can get it to understand how fracturing works, it will stop raising such a fuss.  And then we can hydrofracture where we like.

This reasoning is the result of a worldview that believes if access to information and understanding was equal among all parties, all parties would agree.  In other words, if all of us understood the technicalities of fracturing, we would all go ahead and agree with the process.  This, of course, is not the case, because we may have different values. 

The nuclear power industry has struggled for decades with this lesson.  Many nuclear advocates continue to believe that if the public would just understand radiation or the principles of nuclear fission, it would endorse the “nuclear renaissance” and begin a reactor-building frenzy.  Yet arguments about cost, safety, waste, and proliferation have not been so easily put to bed, and educated knowledgeable people in the field continue to have hearty disagreements about whether nuclear power is the best path forward.  The same could be said of debates over hydrofracturing.

The best way to know whether the deficit model has you in its thrall is to observe whether you frequently find yourself making calls for improved public education, particularly at the elementary school level.  This is a sign of frustration, on your part, with those who disagree with you, and you believe the disagreements have to do with technical misunderstandings.  Of course, there may be technical misunderstandings—there often are.  But clarifying those—whether by calling for revised science education or publishing another fact sheet debunking the documentary movie, GasLand—does not mean someone will end up agreeing with you.  Because, fundamentally, you may be disagreeing not about information, but values.

Postnormal Technologies

A third barrier to engagement, therefore, is that large-scale technological developments today are often “postnormal” (a term coined by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz).  These technologies, such as hydrofracturing, nuclear power, and nanotechnology, are typified by excess amounts of controversy, dueling fact sheets or information campaigns, dramatized polarities (“for” and “against”), and deeply entrenched misunderstandings on both sides. 

Sound familiar?

Postnormal technologies are typified by experts on both sides embroiled in nasty disagreements over data.  In these cases, having more information does not always settle public unease about extractive projects.

In fact, in a political field in which a technology is already controversial, more information may be counterproductive.  It may lead to what science policy scholar Dan Sarewitz calls “an excess of objectivity.”  There are so many “facts” that having more facts does not tell us how to proceed.  In the words of political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., “Science does not compel action.”

Disparate Models of Justice

The fourth barrier to engagement is operating under disparate models of justice.  When I say we disagree about values, it is possible that those disagreements extend from the competing models about what is just.Volumes have been written about how to define justice, extending all the way back to the Greeks; perhaps two definitions of justice would be most meaningful in this context. 

The first is distributive justice, and it is the model most prevalent in the industry—and in most capitalist economies, for that matter.  Distributive justice focuses primarily on outcomes.  It is the business, or legal, model of justice.  It leads us to believe that if three out of five farmers sign leases to hydrofracture on their land, and are happy with the monetary compensation they have received from those leases, then things are just.  We have accomplished the greatest good for the greatest number, and the outcomes have been reasonable.  The other two farmers, whose property values or quality of life may have been dramatically affected, are in the minority.  Tough luck.  Distributive justice gave them their opportunity to reap financial gain, but they passed.  Distributive justice tends to be efficient, familiar, and can be operationalized.

Many of us, however, may be operating under a different model of justice called procedural justice.  Procedural justice is messier and more complicated.  It takes more time.  It requires the building of relationships.  That is because procedural justice, to function well, requires trust.  And trust is made up of different factors, which many social scientists spend their careers trying to understand and measure, such as:

  • Do community members feel they have a real voice in decision making?
  • Do community members have access to information, and is that information comprehensive?  Are they able to trust that the information is being provided by an “honest broker” as opposed to originating from interested parties (i.e., industry or environmental nonprofits)?
  • Are decision-making processes transparent?  Do community members know who to contact if there are problems or questions?  Who is accountable if there are problems?  How is this accountability enforced?
  • Are there fair procedures in place for handling conflicts?
  • Are there fair outcomes? (Distributive justice is just one aspect of procedural justice).
  • Is the dignity of citizens preserved in processes and outcomes?  Are citizens’ voices managed, silenced, or manipulated, or are they allowed expression?  Are those voices involved in actual decision making, or are hearings primarily symbolic? 
  • Are people treated as ignorant, or as obstacles?  Or are they involved in decision making?

A Look at Other Industries

This is a tall order for the oil and gas industry.  You can think of many reasons why these efforts might not work, whether in cases involving fracturing or offshore drilling.  It may be helpful to consider, then, other industries’ approaches to public engagement.

By and large, the mining industry has begun to meaningfully grasp the concept of public engagement, a complex process that goes beyond charitable giving to affected communities or old-school corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies that create quid pro quo relationships between local power brokers and industry.  Although they still face resistance to particular operations around the world, some mining companies have begun to understand that community members are not clients, nor obstacles, nor inferiors to be placated.  They may not be business partners, either.  They are, fundamentally, citizens with rights and desires of their own. 

The mining industry has a history—albeit a brief one—of engagement with citizens in these terms.  Mining companies hire experts from anthropology, sociology, communication, and other fields to consult and build engagement processes so that projects can meet some baseline standards in terms of respecting human and environmental rights.  They work with nongovernmental organizations or CSR  consultants who know how to do this work.  Many of these mining companies understand that their “social license to operate” depends on doing things better and not just on corporate philanthropy.  This new model is, in many cases, partnership building.

Egregious counterexamples exist, but there is nonetheless a trend toward engagement in that industry.  Their conferences feature panels and conversations on the topic.  Books and articles have been written.  There has been a shift in emphasis toward public engagement.  Many still have work to do. As in the oil and gas industry, there are rogue operators and majors alike who do things poorly and make life difficult for everyone.

And doing public engagement does not mean you will end public conflict; sometimes the opposite occurs.  However, the current approach—deficit models operating in a postnormal situation—are both counterproductive and undemocratic. It is time for the oil and gas industry to move in a new direction. 

For Further Reading

Pielke, R.A. Jr. 2007. The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge University Press.
Riley, D. 2008. Engineering and Social Justice. Synthesis Lectures on Engineers, Technology, and Society. Morgan and Claypool Publishers.

Jen Schneider is an assistant professor in liberal arts and international studies at the Colorado School of Mines. Her research focuses on how scientists, engineers, industry, and activists communicate with each other and the public about the politics of energy extraction and production technologies.  She holds a PhD in cultural studies from Claremont Graduate University.  She is a coauthor of Engineering and Sustainable Community Development published in 2010.