Special Section: The Value and Future of Petroleum Engineering

For petroleum engineers, it is aggravating to hear negative comments about the oil and gas industry, often by people who don’t understand the industry or get the facts wrong.

“I was asked about this whenever I spoke,” said Janeen Judah SPE, 2017 SPE President, recalling how members were unsure how to respond to negative or inaccurate claims. She agreed that it is disappointing to hear the work you are proud of misrepresented, and misconceptions can lead to bad policies. For example, those who assume that a transition from oil and gas to wind and solar will take just a few years rather than decades are also likely to oppose government policies that will allow for the exploration and production required to meet global energy demand.

Adding to the challenge, managing public perception is not something that petroleum engineers learn in college. Engineers are likely to struggle to understand a thought process that seems illogical and subjective.

Understanding how opinions are formed, and changed, requires dealing with the fact that the workings of our brains—including those of engineers—are influenced by logic, but the thought process also brings many other things into the equation to arrive at what may seem like a logical conclusion.

“A few years ago I thought it was 80% facts and reasoning and 20% gut reaction. Now I think we are the other way around,” said Lyn Arscott, SPE president in 1988. He realized that things are not always what they seem after reading about the growing body of psychological research concluding that the way people evaluate facts, or even decide what are the facts, is based on many considerations—strongly held beliefs, a sense of justice and safety, rules of thumb, and group norms. A phrase often used in this discussion: things are complicated.

It is not that the general public is made up of people who are not logical thinkers. But there are also automatic thinking processes in our brain that evolved to help people make quick decisions in a dangerous world.

“Psychology might not be a traditional subject for JPT but it is essential that engineers understand what makes people tick,” Arscott said. That understanding can help explain why “it is not enough to make a case going ‘point one and two and three and four and this is what you do,’” he said.

This realization helped him answer a question that bothered him during his long career in oil and gas: “Why don’t they love us?”

Shifting Expectations

Arscott is proud of how the industry reduced its environmental impact in the decades after he shifted from working in production to working in a health, safety, and environment (HSE) position. He helped drive Chevron’s first push to comply with then-new oil and water pollution regulations.

“Slowly we realized we did not have to sacrifice the environment. We had to literally change the culture. I am so proud we are there. There are pockets of resistance, but we are there,” Arscott said.

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