Economist Schools Public And Industry On Vital Role Of Communication

June 2014, Vol. 241, No. 6

Erin Nelsen Parekh, Associate Editor

While the energy industry’s share of the economy is on the upswing, the business is in many ways still a specialty field, with innumerable complex issues at play between companies, regulators and the public when it comes to development, conservation and jobs. Few people understand the interplay well enough to provide context to those not in the midst of it, and those in the middle can lose sight of the big picture. Bernard “Bud” Weinstein, Ph.D., is applying his considerable talents to bridging those gaps.

After 20 years as the head of a University of North Texas business development center specializing in public policy, economic development and analysis, Weinstein now focuses on the North American energy boom.

“I like to joke that I’m trying to become an energy economist in my old age. There’s just so much to learn. I’m pretty old, I retired from full-time academic life in 2009 and I’m kind of spending my twilight years reading, writing, speaking, blogging about energy issues.”

He is now associate director at the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, where he breaks down complex issues into easy-to-understand segments, often with a characteristically memorable turn of phrase. For instance, at Pipeline & Gas Journal’s Pipeline Opportunities Conference in March, Weinstein explained in 150 plain words why the East Coast isn’t refining more Texas shale oil.

“The East Coast refineries would love to have more of this light crude coming out of the Eagle Ford, but there aren’t enough pipelines that go up that way from Texas. It’s possible to move it by tanker but the problem is it has to be an American flag tanker under the Jones Act. And that generally makes it too expensive to ship oil from Corpus Christi to New Jersey. You can ship it from Corpus Christi to Canada – that’s international – and you can use a Liberian or Panamanian ship.

“So, this is a serious challenge. As a consequence, these refineries in New Jersey and other East Coast areas are buying crude from the Middle East, they’re buying out of Rotterdam, when they could be buying our crude oil out of Texas and refining it in New Jersey. But because of the Jones Act, not much of that happens.”

The ability to quickly summarize and clarify all relevant parts of a complex issue has endeared Weinstein to journalists, and his comments have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, while television news programs have hosted him as an analyst and his articles on energy issues have appeared in National Journal and other publications.

Although energy was not his specialty in earlier years, it’s no coincidence that he’s gravitated toward it now. “You can’t live in Texas for 38 years and not be interested in energy. I have over the years done some work for energy companies and I’ve written on energy issues,” he acknowledged.

In addition to keeping up with the details for nearly all of the fast-changing slate of energy topics under discussion, Weinstein watches the big picture. He takes particular interest in the lack of a cohesive energy policy in the United States.

Although he felt most proposed national energy policies would be too oversimplified to serve the nation’s best interests, Weinstein had no praise for the haphazard way energy issues are debated at the highest levels of government.

“The only time we even talk about energy policy in this country is when gasoline’s over $4 a gallon,” he said. “The public and the politicians don’t care about energy policy as long as they can fill up their tanks, don’t have to wait in lines and the price is perceived to be reasonable.”

That inattention means any debate at all depends on a well-timed spike in gasoline prices, as happened during the 2012 elections. When that occurs, Weinstein said, “For about 10 minutes there was some public debate about energy policy. It was kind of silly. It was mainly Democrats accusing the oil industry of conspiring to push up gasoline prices and the Republicans pointing back at the Democrats and saying, ‘Drill, baby, drill.’

“It wasn’t a very enlightened debate and it only lasted a few minutes because that spike was just around for a few weeks and man, as soon as gasoline dropped below $4 a gallon, energy was off the radar screen and the candidates didn’t talk about it at all.”
The longstanding political apathy is perhaps to be expected. Weinstein pointed out that although the energy business is dispersed over huge tracts of land in the United States and is economically vital to many states, the coincidence of geography keeps it on the back burner.

“Most of the energy — not only fossil fuels, but wind and solar for that matter — comes from what I call the vertical energy belt that runs from North Dakota down to Texas and includes Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico and Oklahoma,” Weinstein said. “Texas is a big state with lots of people, but the other [energy] states don’t have a lot of people or political clout.”

Low population in the affected areas means low representation in Congress, fewer local media sources and less attention from the better-known outlets unless something happens to make headline news.

“Most people in America don’t know a damn thing about energy,” Weinstein said, and what they do know is likely to come from questionable sources.

“Part of it is the industry’s fault,” he said. “They haven’t done a very good job over the years of getting their message across. They’re doing better and trying harder.”
Meanwhile, the public has a very low level of information about energy, and powerful antagonizing messaging has filled the knowledge gap.

“You really need to watch this Gasland,” he said, referring to the controversial film by Josh Fox released in 2010. “It’s very well made, good production values — bad science, but it’s a good documentary. It holds your attention. If that’s all you see, if that becomes the way you garner an understanding of what hydraulic fracturing is and what it does, then you think it’s absolutely terrible . . . because it’s bad for the planet, it’s polluting water, it’s causing earthquakes, and it’s tearing up the landscape, and it’s just absolutely awful, and the companies who are in the business are unscrupulous. A lot of people see that and that’s what they believe.”

There are no simple solutions to repair the damage, Weinstein said, since average citizens have no particular impetus to educate themselves, and most general media coverage is biased either for or against the energy industry.

Meanwhile, the nature of the news culture means that nearly every time energy makes headlines, it’s a negative development. The Deepwater Horizon disaster made a big impression. “That accident convinced a lot of people that oil and gas exploration is dangerous and you have these spills and that’s bad for the environment, so certainly that didn’t help. Just like Fukushima didn’t help the prospects for the nuclear industry, even though we’ve had 65 years of commercial nuclear power generation in the U.S. and there’s never been an illness or death related to a radiation leak.”

It’s not that the public doesn’t appreciate what the industry provides. Perhaps predictable for an educator, Weinstein sees more problems stemming from ignorance than malice. The excitement over electric cars with attendant disinterest in power generation is a telltale sign.

“Most people don’t know where the electricity comes from,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh man, this is great, all I have to do is plug in the car, I don’t have to spend money on gasoline and it’s good for the environment.’” Not so fast.

“You’re still depending on a power source that’s probably coming from a fossil fuel. You just have to kind of laugh at all this.”

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