Perhaps never in Pennsylvania history has an industry enjoyed so many advantages, yet somehow managed to put itself in a place where rank-and-file lawmakers (as well as the Delaware River Basin Commission) are looking to put it out of business, at least temporarily.
Consider the upsides to the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania.
1. Natural gas has long been a favored fuel source of environmentalists, who correctly view it as a “transitional” fuel, a bridge between fossil fuels and renewable energy.
2. The sheer amount of natural gas sitting underneath Pennsylvania can go a long way to breaking our country’s dependence on foreign oil.
3. The industry will create tens of thousands of jobs in a state that is currently lugging around a 9.1% unemployment rate.
4. Drilling for natural gas is much less invasive to the environment than traditional mining (if you quibble with that fact, please take a tour of a longwall mining operation in western Pennsylvania.)
5. Natural gas is cleaner-burning, and therefore does not contribute as much to poor air quality as other fossil fuel burning does.
6. The natural gas industry has been in Pennsylvania for 150 years, drilling conventional shallow wells.
Despite these incredible advantages, starting last year and culminating with the nationwide premier this week on HBO of “Gasland”, the industry has ceded much of the high ground. One guy with a video camera has changed the entire debate around gas drilling, and the industry either (a) never saw it coming or (b) failed to execute a comprehensive public relations campaign to inoculate the industry against attacks like Gasland that they knew would come sooner or later. In any case, the Washington Generals are now beating the Harlem Globetrotters by 10 points late in the 4th quarter.
While the Twitterverse was abuzz Monday night with posts under #Gasland, the industry was putting out a fact sheet, debunking the contents of the movie. Go to this website, they asked us all. To be frank, their response has been akin to trying to plug the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico with a Tupperware container.
The date is January 25, and Gasland is wowing audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. Five days later, it wins an award. The movie then begins getting screenings in northeastern PA, the home of the film’s creator. Where was the strong, statewide coordinated effort by the industry and its coalition partners, explaining that what people were watching was the exception, not the norm?
The industry, while it is to be commended for hosting many town hall-style meetings across the state, has failed to connect with the vast majority of Pennsylvanians. Reaching into the state’s television markets would have been a good start, considering the industry’s enemies have owned the airwaves up to this point. Viral marketing, the use of blast e-mails, social media campaigns, editorial board meetings, talk show appearances and a whole laundry list of traditional public relations services could have helped to educate the public and build trust.
They appear to have violated Rule #1 from the crisis communications/risk communications handbook: Tell your story – the whole story – yourself or risk having someone else tell it their way.
The lack of a coordinated campaign has also hampered the industry in Harrisburg. Lobbyists who represent the industry are being asked to constantly put out fires, from severance taxes, to moratoriums to tighter wastewater regulations, and they are doing so with little cover from industry public relations teams. FAQ sheets and one-pagers on the benefits of natural gas drilling are clearly not getting the job done on the Hill.
Outside of a full scale campaign, it appears as though the industry also did not plan, or has failed to execute on a plan, for managing the inherent risks of their operations through a risk communication program. Let’s face facts. The industry is engaging in some pretty dangerous work, and accidents are going to happen.
Risk communications, an off-shoot of risk management, assumes that you treat your audiences like partners – which in fact they are. Rather than treating them like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark about risks and feeding them horse manure – you treat them like adults and explain that drilling, like all risks that promise great benefit, can have a downside. If you want your stakeholders – read that as land owners, tax payers, public officials and investors – to be supportive through bad times as well as good, you need to educate them at the beginning that there are benefits and costs but, thankfully, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
The Gasland crisis couldn’t come at a worse time, right on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This is another case study in industry failure; not simply a technical failure leading to an environmental calamity, but a failure – repeated day after day to the public – to tell the basic truth about the severity of the crisis. In short, don’t be this guy:
How bad can things get for the gas industry? Think Three Mile Island. Since 1979, not a single nuclear reactor has been licensed anywhere in the United States.
It may not be too late for the gas industry to start a credible risk communications program – but it will be slow going to rebuild public trust. People living in the immediate vicinity of active drilling will need to be persuaded that the economic benefit outweighs the traffic, road damage and other annoyances. People living in the same watershed will need to believe that the drilling companies have their engineering down pat. It’s true that accidents can and will happen, but they will need to know in advance now that each gas drilling firm has a plan – and the resources – to address, minimize and remediate if an incident does occur.
It’s ironic that as the hubbub over the Gasland airing over the HBO network rolls across Pennsylvania, the Three Mile Island emergency alert sirens were scheduled for a test blast. Exelon, the current owner of TMI, issued alerts and media announcements about the siren tests days in advance to prevent an unnecessary panic. It’s proof that people can learn to live with risk if you treat them in an adult and rational manner.
The goose that laid the golden natural gas eggs in Pennsylvania is not yet dead, but it is being attacked from all sides. The industry needs to reclaim the high ground before someone in Harrisburg pulls the plug. As we mentioned previously, a scared and confused general public has the ability to push lawmakers to do things that we once may have thought improbable. It is now incumbent upon the natural gas industry to get the general public back on its side.