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Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid: Dealing With Public Perceptions of Risk in Oil and Gas Development

Ivan L. London, Colin G. Harris, Denise Hill, Tisha Schuller, 61st Annual Institute Proceedings (2015)

As oil and gas development increasingly encroaches on the “backyards” of residents of towns and cities, many residents say they fear the health and environmental risks caused by the oil and gas operations. As a result, concerned citizens and activists increasingly oppose oil and gas development projects through lawsuits, referendums, and legislation. Often, the public has demanded that industry “prove” that operations are safe before moving forward. Facing that opposition, the oil and gas industry typically attempts to show that its operations are safe using fact-based and logical arguments that focus on (1) explaining how the operations actually work, and (2) how heavily regulated the operations are. The public often seems to ignore these arguments and to perceive the risk of oil and gas development differently from the industry. This chapter examines how this risk perception problem poses a conundrum for the oil and gas industry, and addresses whether the industry can convince a skeptical public that the risks inherent in exploration and production are acceptable.
As members of society, we accept as common sense the maxim that it is “better to be safe than sorry.” We make decisions based on assessments of acceptable risk. Knowingly or not, we choose to accept certain environmental and health risks in return for the economic or other benefits derived from oil and gas dev