Before and after: Groups like the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board are trying to improve the public's perception of the industry by helping to restore -- and improve -- abandoned oil fields. The example above, showing the results of an OERB project, is in rural Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board.
In 1993 a group of grassroots oil producers and royalty owners from Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas met to discuss their concerns about the image of their chosen profession -- and one specific concern resurfaced over and over: the public's negative perception of the oil and gas industry.
The perception was propagated by the fact that, at the time, the industry wasn't very communicative.
Even more telling was the research gathered by the American Petroleum Institute, which concluded that the oil industry was second only to tobacco as the industry with the worst public image.
Point recognized, it didn't take long for this group to spring into action and, in concert with the Oklahoma State Legislature, form the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB).
"We wanted to do something ... other than just talk about ourselves," recalled Pete Brown, founding board member and current chairman of the OERB's Environmental Committee. "We wanted to do something that demonstrated we were concerned about the state of Oklahoma."
And so, they did. The OERB -- the first agency of its kind -- began to work toward its grand mission: bringing the vitality, contributions and environmental responsibility of the Oklahoma oil and natural gas industry to light through positive action and education.
Charles J. Mankin, director of Sarkeys Energy Center at the University of Oklahoma and director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said "the OERB is intriguing because it is funded by a voluntary tax by the industry" through an assessment on crude oil sales. The organization is very much fueled by the independent operators.
OERB's first official mandate was to allocate 50 percent of its budget to cleaning up abandoned oil sites, and reclaim the natural resources laid to waste by companies who had long since vanished or succumbed to bankruptcy.
A 'Daunting Task'
From the onset the OERB was a unique agency with a daunting task.
There were no other agencies responsible for cleaning up historic well sites, so the sites simply remained unattended, scarring the land. Or, best case scenario, the landowners themselves were forced to spend their own money cleaning up the sites.
Farmers had to farm around concrete structures, or fear losing their cattle to unseen sinkholes. Saltwater scars made the land infertile, while dangerous equipment loomed threatening on once viable farmland.
Now, 10 years later, 4,500 of those abandoned well sites are history, with well over 19 million OERB dollars spent on their restoration -- an extensive environmental restoration at no cost to landowners or taxpayers.
Remediation sites are selected by the state Corporation Commission, which passes it on to OERB, who bids the work out to qualified contractors.
For the past eight years the conservation district and the NRCS -- a federal agency that utilizes scientific and technical practices to conserve natural resources on private land -- have partnered with the OERB on projects in 23 Oklahoma counties, tapping into their expertise:
- In the design of ponds.
- For soil amendment recommendations.
- To construct diversion applications.
- For implementation of erosion control on 111 restoration projects.
Stars of the show: Various OERB TV commercials used these people for testimonials on the effectiveness of cleanup efforts for abandoned oil fields.
Along with restoring abandoned well sites, the OERB continues to wrestle with another critical concern: education.
According to board member Pete Brown, the OERB took notice of what seemed to be an oversight in Oklahoma's education system.
"Very few science books discuss energy at all, and yet it is one of the major components of our everyday life," Brown said. "We were seeing kids lose sight of how important the energy industry is to our state, both historically and currently."
The history of the industry was rapidly disappearing. And -- with the reality that young adults would move on to college ignorant of the need to explore and create new energy sources -- its future was also in jeopardy.
Enter "Petro Pros," the fledgling effort of the OERB's educational initiative comprising oil and natural gas industry professionals who volunteer their time and experience visiting Oklahoma classrooms, demonstrating to students the scientific and business side of their field.
The success of this program was quickly followed by science-based curricula for elementary through middle school-aged students. Here, the OERB teamed up with Oklahoma educators to develop its "Fossils to Fuels" and "Petro Active" curricula. It's factual, it's fun and, by all accounts, it's a hands-on, entertaining method of science education.
Mankin, who also is AAPG's immediate past secretary, noted that "OERB has hit a good balance communicating the need and importance of energy and being good stewards and using it in a responsible way."
Other educational tools were soon launched, such as the "Newspapers in Education" program, the Xploration.com interactive Web site, the recently updated "Petroleum Challenge" competition for high school students and a journalism competition for college students. All are creative modes of educating young people on the benefits of the oil and natural gas industry.
OERB officials estimate the programs have reached 350,000 students, and counting.
Efforts in reaching the general population have been high profile -- the latest public awareness campaign draws on the success of the OERB's revitalization program. Each television and radio spot is a candid look at the restoration of a particular site, as told by the landowners affected.
In all cases, the paid advertisements feature a mix of gratitude and candid emotion, as they reveal the triumph of family legacies restored.
As the OERB heads into its second decade, the most outstanding result of its efforts is a radical image shift. The public is now considerably less skeptical of the industry, with recent polls in Oklahoma noting a 73 percent increase in the public's positive view of the industry.
Also, 80 percent of those surveyed claim the oil and natural gas industry is "very" or "extremely" important to the state's economy.
The greatest form of flattery is imitation. Since the OERB's inception, Ohio and Illinois have implemented similar check off agencies, utilizing comparable energy curriculum and clean up programs.
Illinois has gone a step further, executing a safety program for emergency responders -- one the OERB soon hopes to adopt.
Similar programs have been unsuccessful in Texas and New Mexico. "The voluntary funding is a pretty big hang-up," Mankin said.
What's in store for the next decade of OERB service? According to communications director Kristi Allison, a great deal.
"We are in varying degrees of implementing several projects," she said, including:
An updated "Safety Campaign" aimed at adolescents who are likely to play around risky well site equipment.
High school curricula that will help students learn about energy as well as prepare for the SAT and ACT.
A $100 million endowment to Oklahoma schools for science equipment.
"Beyond that," she said, "only time will tell."