The energy wars: can anyone win?

Tisha Schuller is the founder of Adamantine Energy and served as the president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) from 2009 – 2015. She is the author of Accidentally Adamant: A Story of a Girl Who Questioned Convention, Broke the Mold, and Charted a Course Off Map and serves as Strategic Advisor to Stanford University’s Natural Gas Initiative. Tisha is the keynote speaker at CEPA’s 2019 Annual Dinner where she’ll share the insights gained from her time at COGA.

Environmentalism vs. energy development: not a zero-sum game

 

When self-described environmentalist Tisha Schuller moved from California to Colorado, she never expected to be facing the wrath of environmental activists there. Within a few years she’d taken on the role of president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), which represents Colorado’s oil and natural gas companies and their interests. And that’s where her story begins.

In her own words…

I went to my role at COGA with a belief that environmentalism versus energy development isn’t a zero-sum game. I felt I could influence both the energy industry and the public. That’s because I believe we can’t be effective in our environmental responsibility without being honest about our own energy use. And, in being honest about the importance of oil and gas in our economy and in our lives, it’s hard to make reasonable improvements without acknowledging that talk of ‘banning’ or ‘stopping’ is counter productive.

Yet, a couple years in, I became the target of environmental activism.

I often found myself in contentious public meetings with opponents yelling at me, inches from my face. My home address was disclosed. My children and family were targeted. The attacks were heart-wrenching for me because I felt these were really ‘my people’. And they’d turned against me. It’s still painful to recognize that in some segments of the environmental movement it’s not about love for the environment. It’s about winning at all costs.

I also realized most disputes over energy development end in a highly-charged stalemate. That’s because in reality, we each choose to believe the science that conforms with our own world view.

 

So… what will it take to de-escalate the conflict between opponents and proponents of energy development?

 

The main missing element is empathy and understanding, which sounds trite, but it would actually shift our thinking if each side asked ourselves… “when our opponents woke up this morning, what did they want to accomplish?” Everyone believes they’re on the side of right. We need to understand what ‘right’ looks like for our opponents… to understand where they sit and how to engage with them. Thinking about our opponents in a respectful way changes our thinking from win-lose. It creates the opportunity to ask them how they got to where they are.

This respectful approach is vital to our credibility because the 80 per cent of people who are undecided about the topic of energy are looking to see how we engage with our opponents. They’re rating how trustworthy we are. And, if they find us to be more respectful, they will often give us the benefit of the doubt. Building trust is the name of the game. It’s all about how respectful we are, even to those who are opposed to us.

Then our industry also has to reject ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We have to reject political tribes. We have to embody and embrace non-partisanship, even when it seems impossible. And, we have to be aware that often it is our own industry that acts in super partisan ways. It’s not uncommon for us to say, “if only ‘they’ understood, or knew the facts”. In reality, no ad campaign or fact sheet will solve these issues. Industry’s first job must be to build rapport and trust through a lot of direct conversations. Only then will people hear the facts.

 

Where does this leave the future of energy discourse and oil and gas development?

 

I call myself an absurd optimist. I envision a world that is decarbonizing and becoming more prosperous. I see an industry that is positioned to be a huge part of the global solution and transition of raising 1.3 billion people out of poverty. I also see an industry that understands the need to embrace and engage in the paradigm of decarbonizing before we can start to talk about what’s realistic or possible in transitioning energy. I’m sure there will be innovation that we can’t currently fathom. And there’s likely to be massive disruption in the future. My hope is that the energy industry will be central to creating those innovations and disruptions.

 

Note: In addition to an interview with Tisha, this post  includes a few comments from another blog she wrote for the Property and Environment Research Center, published on December 6, 2018.

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