Natural gas and oil companies concerned that fringe protesters will succeed in delaying or canceling projects shouldn't be, said the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. New technology eventually will be embraced, he said, but it will take time.
Peter Kareiva spoke to an enthusiastic audience on Wednesday as a keynote speaker at the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit, sponsored by the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. Kareiva, who has worked on conservation issues since he began working, believes there is room for the energy industry and anti-drilling groups to coexist -- because everybody is a nature lover.
"First...everybody is an environmentalist, pretty much," he said. "The love of nature runs pretty deep and is very widespread."
The Nature Conservancy often collaborates with the oil and gas industry "to influence where you can put wells, and where you can't, and what is offset to minimize environmental impacts," Kareiva said. "It's not 'don't do it, but there's a hierarchy.' You can restore habitats to great effect."
He pointed to a collaboration with industry in part of Wyoming's Jonah field, where "more than half of the acreage was preserved for species impacts. We call this development by design. In other words, there are certain areas you avoid, and if there is damage, how to minimize and restore it" (see Daily GPI,April 7, 2008; Aug. 14, 2006).
Positive messages work, he said. In the November 2012 elections, The Nature Conservancy had 13 state ballot initiatives across the country to protect habitat and fund conservation projects. It won 11 of the 13, basically raising $1 billion for conservation issues "at the ballot box..."
The "red" state of Alabama is a case in point. A survey in October 2011 found that 75% of the voters in the state were opposed to spending state money for conservation projects. However, in the November 2012 elections, 75% voted for a wild lands ballot measure. "Note that conservation got more votes than [presidential contender] Mitt Romney in Alabama, 75% to 60%..."
The turnaround in public opinion was organized and positive. Postcards funded by the conservancy were mailed to Alabama voters urging them to vote "yes" on the state's "Forever Wild" trust. Another postcard said, "It's a good day to go to the beach in Alabama." The conservancy managed to flip voters from 75% against to 75% for.
That lesson indicates that there is a "broad camp, with a big tent for conservation, for industry," he said. The Alabama campaign "worked because of this notion that we have love and really are connected to nature..."
The Nature Conservancy often partners with environmental groups and a wide range of businesses on "global ecology" projects, a "real trend" demonstrated in annual sustainability reports by industry, now issued by 80% of Fortune 500 companies and more than half of the S&P 500. "In 1990 there were 23, now there's 5,000" annual reports.
Kareiva urged the energy industry to make the annual sustainability reports "really scientific, not symbolic..." The future "is very much about creativity...It's not about 'don't, don't, don't,' but rather, how can we be creative and think of cool things to do."
To start a "new path" for oil and gas, industry and its opposition have to agree that neither side is full of "bad guys," said Kareiva. "We talk about economic growth, and we want jobs. But we want all of that other stuff too: forests, fish, etc."
The Nature Conservancy isn't opposed to fracking, he said. "We say fracking is going on in states, and we say, 'how do we work with it, with industry?'" The group "takes the approach that we need regulations, but we also support incentives [by states and others] to encourage collaboration...Incentives can be just as powerful as regulation...
All businesses, including energy, "have a problem" with conversing positively about their work. "It's what I call arrogance. You go to the public and say, 'you don't understand technology, if only you understood, you wouldn't have objections. That's a very poor framework...You have to approach [critics] with humility...Don't start with 'if only you understood...
"Paint a vision and put people in that vision. We say we need this much energy, and then we frame in the numbers. Instead, we need to say that these are what we want to live our lives in Colorado and elsewhere."
There is an "undercurrent" in the population that "wants to return to the past world without any technology," said Kareiva. "It's always been a tradition to reject technology and a tendency when new technology comes to vastly prohibit it," as in new drilling technology.
However, "new ideas are being accepted faster and faster. Telephones took 70 years to penetrate the U.S. market. MP3 players took seven years. The pace of change scares us a little." Eventually, people learn to "embrace technology and ingenuity. And that's the future of my business. It's going to help do my job..."