A Pipeline to the Crude Oil MarketAfter almost a year-and-a-half of growth in the crude oil commodities market, broad volatility has re-emerged. Natural gas futures, which also rose in price through most of 2016, fell by nearly 30 percent earlier this year. Global shifts in production and supply, as well as changes in consumer behaviors and a tepid winter, are eating away at hard-earned gains in the energy sector.

Americans use a tremendous amount of oil and gas products and have done so with less strain on their wallets over the past year. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, approximately 65 percent of our energy comes from petroleum and natural gas. And yet, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, only 27 percent of the U.S. public believes we should strengthen our production of oil and natural gas.

The public’s current opinion about the energy sector has been heavily influenced by social conflict. Recently, the outcry from grassroots community groups has been enough to delay the progress of major pipeline projects. Motivated pipeline protesters have built and exerted their influence by using social media to organize and spread their message. They’ve also been able to pressure elected representatives and use obstruction tactics — often unsafe ones — to attract public attention. In some cases, these efforts have forced owners and investors to scrap projects, often after significant financial investment.

Beyond the perceived environmental impact, many stakeholders who oppose pipeline projects feel their involvement in the planning process has been an afterthought. Traditionally, the public involvement efforts of the pipeline industry have been less than optimal. Rather than address community concerns and use a top-down outreach plan, many project teams have continued to deal with landowners individually — at times employing a hardline approach. Tired of being taken for granted, individual and community stakeholder groups are leaning in and pushing back.

There’s no need for the relationship between the public and pipeline companies to be adversarial. The needs of both groups are connected; sustainable growth, the kind of growth needed in communities all across the U.S., is dependent upon the availability of energy resources. U.S. pipelines are transporting more necessary products than ever, and in order to continue supporting the growth in our economy and population, upgrades will be necessary. Even in those areas where new pipelines aren’t needed, new investments in existing infrastructure to increase capacity and system improvements may be overdue.

It’s important to set realistic expectations regarding stakeholder acceptance; no public subset, especially in this era of online angst and unease, will be unanimous in their acceptance of a project. Where an uptick in stakeholder satisfaction can occur is in the realm of consensus building. To ease the public’s reluctance, project-sponsoring companies must bolster their public involvement efforts at the outset of the project development process.

Ultimately, the interests of the public and the U.S. oil and gas industry are aligned; both are looking for ways to guarantee sustainable growth well into the future. To realize their plans, companies that want to see their infrastructure projects approved and built must emphasize the common ground they share with the American public.

As a senior public involvement specialist for Burns & McDonnell’s Stakeholder Management Solutions department, Chris Deffenbaugh specializes in public involvement, crisis communication, utility project development, integrated rate and resource planning, and communicating public and private policy options.

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