AFPM ’16: Epstein urges ‘human’ approach by fossil-fuel proponents

By Ben DuBose
Digital Editor

SAN FRANCISCO -- The US oil and gas industry is facing what many believe is the most important energy election in a generation, but the framework of the industry's message may need to change to gain more traction with the voting public.

Alex Epstein, author of the New York Times best-selling book, "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels," and an expert on energy and industrial policy, delivered his philosophy-based message as Monday's keynote speaker at the 2016 Annual Meeting.'

"The fundamental mistake the industry makes is thinking they're in a debate over conflicting facts, when it’s really a debate over conflicting philosophical frameworks," he said. Epstein said the two words he would use to describe how the fossil fuels industry responds to its attackers are "reactive" and "overwhelmed."

"We have one side that is reactive and overwhelmed, while the other side is proactive and overwhelming," Epstein said, citing recently Democratic Party presidential debates as examples of prominent candidates holding anti-fracking positions.

Epstein believes those opposed to continuing fossil fuel development—fracking being one example—do so based on one fundamental argument.

"That argument is that we're morally obligated to replace our addiction to fossil fuels and replace it with ‘green’ energy," Epstein said. "No matter what the issue is, that's always coming up. Even if you refute some of the facts, they always have that.

"If one side controls the moral argument, then they get to constantly say that every policy they advocate is heading in the right direction," he continued. "If you say you want to set up a new petrochemical plant, they can say this is wrong because it continues the addiction to fossil fuels, and that we should be moving toward green energy and not away from it."

Epstein likened the fossil fuel industry's challenge to the hydra, a mythical creature from ancient Greece with multiple heads, where each head can attack.

"If you try and fight the hydra by cutting off one head at a time, two more grow back," Epstein said in making his analogy. "Is this the kind of issue that you can fight one at a time, or is there a way to cut out the heart of the hydra, and thus deal with all the different heads?"

To make this argument, Epstein suggests that the industry adopt a "humanist" perspective.

"With the 'green' side, there's an underlying view of human nature that human beings are polluter parasites," he said. "On the other hand, I believe that human beings are improver producers.

"If we weren't, cavemen would’ve been awash with all the health benefits and good things we have today," Epstein added. "If you have a fundamental framework to your argument where human beings are improver producers, it changes the way you and others think about it. In every discussion, you can always frame it as, what are we after? Whenever they bring up fracking, oil spills, policy—if I’m a humanist, my starting point is, let’s talk about what’s best for human life."

Epstein disputes the 'green' environmentalist movement because he rejects the philosophical framework behind it, referring to it as a fallacy.

"The ideal is not a dehumanized planet,” Epstein said. “I decided when I was 18 years old that the 'green' movement was evil, because it's anti-human."

Epstein concluded his remarks by pointing out that the pcoming presidential election is the most important energy election of this century, in his view. But for the oil industry to get the results it desires and change the hearts and minds of some voters, he says it must overcome the philosophical problems that are plaguing its current messaging system.

"We have a fundamental self-esteem issue, and the oil industry has it worse than anyone," Epstein said. "This is the core of human goodness, to take a world that's not as good and make it good."

In the context of the upcoming election cycle and dealing with controversial issues such as climate change, this means taking a much more proactive approach.

"The key is not just to fend off the attacks, but to get people really excited about energy," Epstein said. "We need to frame it in human terms and not simply go on the defensive.

"People respect you if you're proud of what you do," he added. "With every issue you deal with, you need to frame it in a human way and be proud of the ingenuity and technology that goes with it."

Epstein said the recent shale revolution and the technology that accompanied it was a classic case of the industry not taking the correct approach.

"The oil industry could have taken the track that this is a great development for human life, but the industry said nothing exciting or positive about shale technology," Epstein said. "They waited to be defined by someone else.

"The industry doesn't think it's about philosophy," he added. "They think it's about facts. But it’s about more than rhetoric. That’s not enough.”

That said, Epstein believes his proposal can be a key part of the solution.

"Everyone thinks fossil fuels are bad, so no one is concerned about exaggerations or distortions," Epstein said. "What we need to do is change the framework. Rather than people viewing it as a self-destructing addiction, they need to view it as a life-changing good. That changes everything.

"The upside is so, so amazing, given the nature of influence now. I think everyone in this room can change the minds of dozens of people, and some can change tens of thousands. It just depends on your level of motivation. If you think about it in the human way of thinking about things, it will come naturally, and you can be more persuasive than you ever thought."

The AFPM Annual Meeting continues through Wednesday in San Francisco. As the official show daily provider, stick with Hydrocarbon Processing for continued coverage.

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