Energy Literacy…?

By: Lucas Silva, CAGC,

Back in January when the idea of working for the CAGC as their communications intern was first conceived, I was aware of the importance of the oil and gas industry for the entire world, the country, and the province of Alberta. I understood that it stimulated the economy, and provided us with gas in our cars. Of course I was aware of these things; it would be difficult not to be.

While being aware of that, I didn't understand the magnitude of the industry. I never even considered what the country would be like without it. I simply took it for granted.

I knew the obvious benefits, and I had heard the negativity in the media surrounding oil and gas in Alberta, but I never looked into it to the point where I knew any details or specifics. I couldn't discuss it with any sort of confidence. I was aware, but I wasn't energy literate.

I didn't realize the vast amount of products that comprised from oil and gas that affect my day to day life. It didn't even cross my mind that the transfer of all goods relies on transportation, which in turn relies on oil and gas. The industry’s impact is so far reaching it’s incredible.

The job opportunity was presented to me, and at the time I was given some reading material and videos to get a better idea of both seismic and the industry as a whole. Much of the technical content was far too confusing for me to comprehend without previous knowledge, but some of it was relatively basic and I felt as though that it gave me a solid grasp on the industry for the start date on the new job.

I was mistaken. Like I mentioned before, I had a decent idea, but I wasn't at the point where I could be a communicator within the industry, despite the prior reading and video material.

Mike Doyle, president of CAGC, and I sat down to talk about the position, and soon he realized this as well. Over the next couple months I was assigned multiple research projects to complete, videos to watch, material to read, and he pushed me to go out and meet various people within the industry to gain a wide range of perspectives.

Those various sources of information and the various perspectives I has the pleasure of receiving gave me a much cleaner idea of the industry, and I started to create my own opinion off of what I had learnt.

Along with the perspectives of those within the industry that I received, I had numerous opportunities to gain perspectives of those on the other side of the spectrum, giving me a sense of why energy literacy is so important.

I'm at the point now, about three months into the job, that I'm confident in making my own opinion. I believe I'm informed to the point where I can make a decision, and understand why I'm making it.
I have been researching, gaining perspectives and learning for three months, and now I'm at the point where I'm comfortable, and even with that comfort, there is still plenty to learn. There’s plenty aspects that I'm not familiar with in detail, and it will take time to acquire that knowledge. Energy literacy doesn't happen overnight.

I like to think of my journey from the start of the job to now as an evolution of myself. An evolution from an average citizen with little to no grasp of the industry into someone who understands the magnitude, and process of the country’s most important resource and how it can impact the entire country.

When I ask myself now why I failed to be an energy literate citizen before I began the job, I believe there’s many factors. I don’t think I had the drive or motivation to be involved more closely. I had the opportunity to choose what I wanted to spend my time on, and the majority was spent on much different things.

I was never pushed or motivated to focus some of my time and effort on energy literacy. I had the odd discussion about it, but I was never stressed too learn about the industry and the impact it has on the economy.

It was never taught in school. My family moved to Calgary when I was eight years old, and throughout my elementary and high school in Calgary, I was never involved in any instruction regarding the oil and gas industry, or the economy in relation to the industry. Considering how important it is, you’d think it would have a place in the curriculum, even something as simple as an introduction.

There are plenty of people who are in my former situation. Lacking energy literacy for various reasons, but the solution is one that is unclear. Many people will tell you very different solutions, but first, identifying the core problems is key.

Involved in the public affairs of the oil and gas industry for over 30 years and currently the National Leader for MNP’s Oilfield Services group, David Yager, believes the problem starts at the educational level.

“Back when I was a kid growing up, there used to be some introduction to petroleum right in the school curriculum,” Yager explained. “They used to actually have lessons on drilling rigs, oil wells, and seismic. They felt that the economy, that the oil industry was important enough to the economy, that they should get kids exposed.”

Well, that doesn't exist anymore, and from what I've learnt by talking to various people throughout the industry, getting oil and gas back into the curriculum won’t be easy.

“Recently, there was a suggestion that the corporate sector should have a hand in developing the new Alberta curriculum,” Yager said. “Then a whole bunch of people felt that if the oil industry got involved in helping the public education system that it would be a severe conflict of interest. Concerned people feel that business and the economy, and oil and gas is really a sub-species of business and the economy in Alberta, that somehow this is another narrow interest group trying to pollute the minds of the young and oppress them.”

Having oil and gas introduction and/or instruction in grade school would go a long way in solving this battle of energy literacy. Industry doesn't want to brainwash these children, instead making them aware of the industry, and the affect it has on the economics. Creating this awareness allows these students to make their own decision.

Yager describes energy literacy as a part of economic literacy, and his belief is that making them learn at a young age is of the up-most importance.

“I think economic literacy really has to start when people are open-minded and in an environment where they don’t get to pick what they’re going to learn today, and that really ends in grade twelve,” Yager explained.

Beyond the educational level there are a multiple diverse issues impeding the growth of energy literacy. Issues both with the industry itself and from the public.

On the industry side of things, it’s currently fractured and could benefit from a joint approach to energy literacy. Expectations may need to be lowered. Responding to baseless claims, incorrect and/or misleading information needs to happen on a regular basis, and the trust between the industry and the public needs to be strengthened.

From the public, people need to be hungrier. There needs to be more motivation to get involved and be aware. The lack of this motivation can be compared to the recent trend of voter apathy. People just aren't attempting to be illiterate when it comes to both politics and the oil and gas industry. Along with the lack of interest, it’s a responsibility of the citizens to gather information from all sides and make an informed opinion.

Let’s begin with the hierarchy of the industry. Yager outlines this problem well, “The industry itself remains fractured,” he explained. “There’s sort of a cast system in the oil and gas industry. The bigger corporations, I'm thinking of the large multi-nationals. They tend to want the stage.”

During his time as chairman with the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC), he explained at how he led an effort to get these larger multi-nationals to let their seismic, drilling and producing companies to do the talking. They balked at the movement, and continued to lead the charge. Yager doesn't believe this is the best approach. 

“There seems to be some built in chauvinism, ‘We’re big oil, we've got the big oil, we’ll do all the talking.’ There isn't a joint industry approach, and I think if the guys in the field were doing the talking, instead of guys in the corner offices in Calgary, our message would be better received. The chauvinism in the upstream oil and gas industry up to this point prevents that.”

Fixing this issue won’t be easy. It’s going to take a significant change in approach. An approach that’s been in place for years, but the industry will have to adapt and diversify if they want to succeed in this regard.

This problem ties in with the lack of trust the public has towards the industry. If the message is coming from the same source time and time again, it might start to lose its importance, people will stop listening, and consider the message to be without any credibility.

The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy published “Energy and Energy Literacy in Canada: A Survey of Business and Policy Leadership” in February of 2013, and the results were telling. 

This particular survey in the report was described as such: “Elite respondents were asked to rate the trustworthiness of a series of groups and institutions, using a zero to 10 scale where zero is ‘not at all trustworthy’ and 10 is ‘very trustworthy.’”

Energy company executives finished in last place with a score of 3.93, and energy companies were right there with them at 3.98. In the middle of the pack sat environmental groups and activists with a score of 5.01, and community groups and activists sat at 4.98. That’s a rather significant gap between the energy sector and the environmental side.

Clearly it’s an issue, and it won’t be getting any better if the industry doesn't come together and portray their message in unison.

With the energy sector being so important here in Canada, it’s no surprise that it’s constantly in the media. There’s everything from fact-based informative news, critics of the industry, those who support it, but along with all the credible content, there’s a lot of news in the media that is misleading and/or inaccurate.

I haven’t been associated with the industry long enough to say what is incorrect or not, but I can ask questions, do some research, and come to a reasonable conclusion based off various sources of information.

People seem to jump on campaigns or opinions that are popular in the media, whether they’re productive, correct or the complete opposite. Environmental campaigns have a very strong presence in the media, and the news being published isn't always correct.

That is why it’s important for the industry to respond to anything in the media that’s baseless, incorrect, or potentially detrimental. Doing so will give the public the opportunity to get all the right information they need to make an informed opinion. If the industry has a spot in the media, it can even the playing field to some degree.

This is relatable to the joint approach as well. If responses are coming from the same sources within the industry, chances are that it will be ignored by a lot of people. Responding to the public and media goes hand-in-hand with the joint approach strategy, but both are important for energy literacy.

One more thing the industry needs to adjust is their expectations. This is something I have learnt through my time here. It seems as though many people I talk to about the subject expect everyone to be energy literate, and it should happen with relative ease. Well, that’s not exactly the most realistic expectation to have.

After about 6-8 weeks of being on the job, researching and gaining perspectives, was I able to be comfortable with energy literacy. It takes time, there’s so much to learn and absorb, many factors to consider, and it’s irresponsible to believe an average citizen should become energy literate in a moment’s time. For obvious reasons, someone working outside of the industry could require significantly more than 6-8 weeks.

People within the industry need to realize that it will take plenty of hard work, a change in approach, and a good deal of time. Both for individuals themselves to be energy literate and for the entire public to buy in and become an energy literate society.

On the public’s side of things, it really comes down to motivation, and the want that people have, or lack there-of, that needs to be adjusted. The public needs to be more motivated, there are other factors, but it comes down to something that simple. Yager sums this lack of motivation in fellow swoop. 

People will pull up to the gas pump, complain about the price of gas saying that it’s too high, and criticize the development of the oil sands all in one sentence, while they’re filling up with refined bitumen,” Yager said. “They’re actually putting gasoline that came from the oil sands in their car and not supporting the oil sands development. It’s astonishing really.”

That’s an example of someone who is in tune with the industry, but doesn't have the motivation or hunger to learn enough to make an informed, unbiased opinion.

“This is where were at in society today, ‘I want environmental purity, but I'm not willing to make any personal sacrifices in my consumption habits to achieve that,’” Yager continued. This is further exemplifying the stated problem above. There’s public interest in the industry, but there seems to be a lack of people willing to get involved to the point where substantial change is possible because of an informed, impartial and objective opinion.

I've seen first-hand, situations such like the one Yager explained, in more detail.

Recently, I was with some friends and the topic of children got brought up, and my one friend said something along the lines of not wanting to have children because the world is falling apart because of environmental damage. He pleaded that he didn't want to bring children into this world that will inevitably fall apart.

He was referring to the oil and gas industry, and the environmental damage that comes along with it. He saw something in the news and believed it, not just once, but over and over again. He never once considered why he has the life he does, why he can drive his car around, why his father has a job with Microsoft, the economic benefits of the industry, or what he would have to give up in order to get rid of the oil and gas industry.

He never considered the challenges of other types of energy, the potential cost, the impact on his quality of life, the regulations and strict policies and regulations in place to prevent damage, the technology being created to limit damage, or even something as simple as where his phone came from. These are a few things he never even considered and yet he made a decision, an ill-informed one.

I would never try to convince him to change his mind, instead I told him he should consider all factors before having such a pessimistic, irrational frame of mind. That’s all you can really ask for. 

The opinion that my friend had is one that seems to be rather popular in Alberta. The environmental campaigns and activists, the media, and the famous environmental advocates that trash the oil sands play a heavy role in this occurrence.

Despite those factors, it should be a goal for responsible citizens to gather information from all respective parties involved, and make an opinion with those in mind. Industry isn't trying to make everyone pro oil and gas; it’s trying to make aware of the energy sector, and everything that goes into it.

Clearly, there are a number of obstacles that energy literacy faces. The industry’s fractured approach, public trust problems, lack of response in the media, and high expectations are all issues that need to be paid attention to. Citizens need to be hungrier, they should aim to be energy literate in a country where the energy sector is so very important. And of course, the educational curriculum will be an important focus point for years to come.

As someone who has been through the evolution of becoming a citizen who’s comfortable with energy literacy, I've not only learnt what it may take for the average citizen to do that, but I’ve also learnt that it’s a difficult process with many things to overcome, and it could use an approach that’s significantly altered.

Why is this all relevant? Why do people care?

Questions worth considering, but it’s a relatively simple answer. Canada is fortunate to have a vast amount of resources that are coveted around the globe, and Canada’s ability to take advantage of that will ultimately drive the country’s future prosperity.

For those that say they don’t care, ask them if they’ll care when the price of gas or everyday goods and services rise. Chances are you’ll receive a different response. Or in a worst case scenario, I'm sure they would care if those products suddenly were in short supply or taken away from them.

I'm not going to be the person to know exactly how this problem can be fixed. It’s a multilateral issue with many different areas to be considered, but the process I've been through has taught me a lot.

I've attempted to break down the problem into separate sub-sections from what I've learnt, but ultimately it comes down to an approach that’s still stuck in the past, and needs an adjustment in order to see this problem continue to diminish.


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