Words matter and our industry is confusing the heck out of people… and itself.
I know that I have a horse in this race, but I strongly believe that innovation of the water lifecycle is the most exciting thing happening in oil and gas today. Necessity is driving rapid advancements in our collective understanding of water management challenges and the industry is doing what it does best: innovating solutions to solve them, improve water management and thereby improve the efficiency and profitability of oil and gas production. The industry is making major advances in reuse, managing seismicity, and better stewarding water resources, both above and below the surface. It is laying the groundwork for beneficial use of treated produced water beyond oil and gas, potentially creating a future water supply in some of the driest parts of the country. The pace at which it is all happening is remarkable and rightly so – solving these issues is critical to continued development of high water cut basins like the Permian. So why is it so hard for us to talk about it?
The oil and gas industry has long acknowledged its messaging problem. Technological advancements, stewardship, corporate citizenship, community engagement and philanthropy – even the very importance of the industry itself to global living standards – often go unmentioned. I’m not sure why we haven’t gotten our collective act together over the last decade. Unfortunately, countless campaigns by the industry’s opponents have successfully made the general public fearful and deeply skeptical of our industry. More than a decade and a half after I was first exposed to policy debates around energy, the industry still has a fragmented and at times incomprehensible approach to messaging. In that span of time, we have not assuaged fears of fracking with facts and clear messaging. Our advocacy quickly becomes wonky, overly nuanced, and people don’t get it. In today’s world of clickbait headlines and sensational ‘journalism’, this failure to coalesce around effective messaging comes at our peril, particularly against the backdrop of a cynical public.
Take an experience at a recent conference to illustrate this point. Early in the conference program, I explored factors that will shape the water management market from the stage and was followed by a great panel discussion by water midstream leaders. The only takeaway that a news outlet deemed worthy of publishing was absurd and ridiculous at best, and intentionally salacious and damaging at worst. ‘Shale-Oil Drillers Are Running Out of Places to Dump Toxic Wastewater’ was the highly-charged headline based on the great content he heard about how the industry is adapting to meet new water management challenges. Clickbait, anyone? ‘Dump’ and ‘toxic wastewater’ were not in the lexicon of any presenters – we don’t ‘dump’ water, for Pete’s sake. Neither was doomsday the tenor of the presentations. I highlighted the advancements made in recycling – I even mentioned multiple times that the industry increased recycled water use far faster than we modeled. Chris Wright of Liberty Energy opened the conference with a rousing speech about the importance of oil and gas to humanity and highlighted advancements in efficiency and technology, underscoring the absurdity of the journalist’s piece.
The problem is that without a clear industry narrative (not differentiated corporate marketing) and real data to back it up, the industry will continue to be an easy target, especially with such a polarizing topic as water. Clarity is key, but often anathema to the fastidious, nuanced way we all tend to approach our messaging. This subject matter is complicated, after all; so should be our message! We often get deeply in our own heads when talking about the many virtues and game-changing potentialities related to water management, but how about the bare-bones version for today’s lay audience? It’s a heck of a lot harder to articulate than one thinks. And this basic ‘what’ and ‘why’ messaging must be communicable without nuance or the added color companies love to sprinkle in, in hopes of differentiating themselves.
How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Look, it’s as simple as saying ___’, when describing oil and gas or oilfield water management, only to think, ‘well that’s not really how I would say it, but…’? We will drive real progress and value for this industry by defining the basics and telling the public why they matter: what are the basic principles for responsible water stewardship today and how do we measure them? What is a water midstream company? Can we agree on a definition for water recycling and report accurately and uniformly on it? Why are water pipelines important? A simple, understandable explanation of what we do and why is a needed foundation to regain public trust.
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