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We Don't Think Too Much of Them Either

The Answer Is …

Question of the month:

Is the public's opinion of the petroleum industry really low, or is that media propaganda?

Short answer: It's even worse than you think.

And if you think there's nothing wrong with having J.R. Ewing for a neighbor, brace yourself ...

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Question of the month:

Is the public's opinion of the petroleum industry really low, or is that media propaganda?

Short answer: It's even worse than you think.

And if you think there's nothing wrong with having J.R. Ewing for a neighbor, brace yourself ...

A recent Golin/Harris poll asked what industries people felt they could trust. The oil and gas industry finished dead last, with a negative 63 percent rating.

Surveys taken during times of high oil prices find public sentiment running 4-to-1 against the industry.

Roger Olien is a history professor and J. Conrad Dunagan Chair of Regional and Business History at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, Texas. With Diana Davids Olien, he wrote the book Oil and Ideology: The Cultural Creation of the American Petroleum Industry.

Their work traces the growth and reputation of the industry from its beginnings through World War II, a time when the Rockefeller-Standard Oil monopoly first turned public opinion against Big Oil.

"I don't think it's changed much at all. The industry today is seen more accurately as a global big business," Olien said. "With the disappearance of three of the Seven Sisters, it's hard to argue with that."

Olien attributes the public's view of the petroleum business, in part, to "a pervasive ignorance of economics." And the industry hasn't had much success in spreading its story, he noted.

Shell Oil did release a series of short education films about petroleum in the 1960s, Olien recalled. "The text was sort of high school level and the photography was beautiful," he said, "but nobody has followed up on it."

In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the years to turn public opinion around — to little avail.

Speeches and statements from industry leaders don't do any good at all, Olien observed:

"Anything they say is seen as self-interested, for good reason."

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