The U.S. energy industry finds itself besieged by its usual critics on the one hand and unpredictable forces of supply-and-demand on the other. Oil and natural gas prices have plummeted worldwide yet production remains at near-record levels—an anomaly that industry decision-makers are doubtless seeking to address.
They also need to address another challenge that cuts right to the heart of the energy industry’s viability: the scientific community’s outspoken indictment of modern drilling practices. A recent Scientific American article draws the nexus between the relatively new technology of horizontal drilling, spearheaded by a technique known as “wastewater injection wells,” and the recent spate of sizeable earthquakes that have plagued Oklahoma, Texas, and other states.
Is the science referenced in the article accurate? Or has it been embellished or cherry-picked? For most laymen, it’s difficult to know.
But the industry’s critics, as well as government and public affairs strategists, can point out that: a) Scientific American is a credible journal with considerable influence over elected officials, regulators, reporters, and opinion leaders; and, b) the circumstantial evidence surrounding the issue is disquieting. The new technology is being deployed in a part of the world in which earthquakes have been rare to nonexistent over many decades. Yet, since the energy industry began employing these new drilling techniques, tremors strong enough to rattle windows in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and other communities have hit with alarming frequency. No one has been hurt—yet. But some scientists are worried that more severe quakes may be in the offing.
The Scientific American piece is the latest exposé warning of the dangers inherent in new drilling practices. Hydraulic fracturing techniques in the Northeast and Midwest have also come under fire, putting public safety concerns front and center in the debate over the future of energy production.
Energy industry leaders need to assuage those concerns or run the risk of allowing their adversaries to caricature the industry as lacking sufficient commitment to public safety and environmental protection. Specifically, the industry should embrace greater transparency and accountability in its drilling practices, inviting third-party experts with impeccable safety credentials to assess its current practices and help it develop environmentally sound practices.
In those areas that have been hardest hit by the earthquakes, the industry should engage in a concerted effort to assure residents that it is responding to their concerns. Industry leaders need to be communicating similar messages to opinion leaders and decision-makers.
Reasonably priced domestic energy production is key to returning more manufacturing and jobs to the United States. Given what is at stake, the energy industry needs to be as thoughtful and aggressive in the public education marketplace as it is in the economic marketplace.
Andrew Wright, a former chief of staff to two Members of Congress, is the president of Wright Strategies LLC, a Washington-based government affairs firm.