Telling the Bakken's True Story

Dakota Access Pipeline protests teach the industry lessons about communicating and why an expanded effort needs to be started and continued to tell the true story of the Bakken and other oil and gas developments.
By Patrick C. Miller | December 20, 2016

The ability to effectively communicate in the age of the internet and social media was vividly demonstrated on Nov. 8 when Donald Trump tweeted his way to the White House, directly contradicting the predictions of media pundits, pollsters and political experts alike.

Events in North Dakota surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)—which ballooned from a local protest to a news story of international prominence—are just as mystifying to those in the oil and gas industry who work with the news media to communicate key messages to the public.

“It’s been difficult because everyone wants to know what’s coming next for the pipeline,” says Tessa Sandstrom, communications manager for the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “It’s hard to talk factually when there’s so much emotion involved. It’s definitely a little bit different than a lot of situations.”

Rob Lindberg, head of an organization called the Bakken Backers—a coalition of North Dakota businesses, leaders, workers and citizens who support oil and gas development in the Bakken—believes the issues related to DAPL demonstrate that the state’s oil and gas industry needs to understand how it’s perceived outside of North Dakota’s borders. 

“We run into a general communication error in that we tend to—as industry—talk really well where we live and operate, but we don’t talk to the rest of the world,” he says. “So where there’s an oil well or a pipeline, we need to start having people on the ground or targeting social media posts to those sorts of places.”

One person who has been active in championing the oil and gas industry is Kathy Neset, president of Neset Consulting Service in Tioga and chair of the State Board of Higher Education. Her name has become synonymous with helping the public understand the uniqueness and importance of the Bakken. 

Neset cites the NDPC’s Oil Can outreach and education program and the Bakken Backers as communications efforts that have been successful within the state. 

“They’ve really made an effort to reach out to communities, teach people and hold forums and town halls and such,” she says. “People in North Dakota took ownership of it. We go out to the communities and the rooms are usually full—people here want to learn.”

However, she stresses that if the industry doesn’t tell its story beyond North Dakota’s borders, somebody else will.

“Nine times out of 10, it is not going to be your true story,” Neset notes. “Nobody knows the story better than we do. We are the ones who live it, eat it and breathe it. No one person can do this. It has to be a united effort, and it has to have the importance put on it that the Dakota Access Pipeline issue has shown it deserves.”

Lindberg agrees and adds, “You can’t spread a message without any allies. A lot of companies are starting to wake up to that and be a little better, but it’s a long road ahead for it to happen.”

Neset believes the DAPL protests should serve as a catalyst to change the way industry communicates on a national level—to become more proactive and less reactive.

“The way you do that is that you come together and you work together,” she explains. “Upstream, midstream and downstream companies are going to have to unite their voices and their message because what’s happening now is somebody else is telling our story for us, and that’s not the truth. The truth needs to be told by the participants.”

Lindberg points out that the controversy surrounding DAPL was largely the confluence of events fueled by organizations with anti-industry agendas which made the issue difficult for anyone to accurately predict. 

“The level of protest organizations around DAPL is unprecedented for North Dakota,” he notes. “We went from 200 people in early August to several thousand. No one could have predicted that this would happen at this spot. If anyone would have guessed, they would have said Iowa.”

Lindberg explains that an unusual aspect of the storm surrounding DAPL was that four different factions of government were involved—county, state, federal and tribal. 

“The situation of different governments at this pipeline site along Lake Oahe really has allowed the whole action to happen,” he says. “You have a tribal government, the federal government owning the land that the protesters camp on and then you have private land surrounding it all that’s largely governed by the county and the state. You also have the Obama administration that won’t enforce anything on federal land.”

Getting critical information to the public about the technologies employed to keep the pipeline safe while protecting the environment has been a challenge, according to Sandstrom. 

“A lot of people don’t even know that the pipeline will go into the ground 90 feet below the river. They aren’t aware of technologies that exist now to prevent spills—the shutoff valves, the monitoring that will go into it, the fact that it’s double-lined, that it’s inspected,” she says. “There are a lot of things that haven’t been shared about the construction technologies that are going to be implemented with this pipeline.”  

Lindberg also notes that there are powerful groups behind the scenes backing the protesters who advocate the “keep it in the ground” position on oil and gas production. 

“It's important to remember, too, that the anti-energy organizations aren’t some sort of purely grassroots effort,” Lindberg says. “It’s a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry. They have professional operations to put misinformation out and create their own stories. Operators of pipelines or energy producers tend to just want to go and get the job done without a lot of fanfare. The opposition wants to create as much drama as they can.”

Indeed, Kelcy Warren, chairman and CEO of Energy Transfer Partners LLC, the Dallas-based company building DAPL, issued a memo in September after protests became national news saying, “…our corporate mindset has long been to keep our head down and do our work. It has not been my preference to engage in a media/PR battle. However, misinformation has dominated the news, so we will work to communicate with the government and media more clearly in the days to come.”

Neset agrees that what’s happened with the DAPL project illustrates the need for industry to anticipate controversy and address issues before they spin out of control. 

“The industry needs to realize that even when you follow the process, follow the rules of law and go through the proper channels, a project can still be uprooted and disrupted,” Neset says. “It comes down to companies prioritizing how important it is to educate people.” 

Sandstrom outlined NDPC’s efforts to communicate with the state’s residents, which range from educational seminars for teachers, public information sessions tailored to individual communities and a variety of events—such as the Bakken Rocks CookFest—and charitable activities. She notes that they all provide opportunities for residents to pose questions directly to those working in the state’s oil and gas industry.“

In the past, it’s been the Bakken basics focused drilling, hydraulic fracturing and the development process,” Sandstrom says. “As we’ve gotten further into the development phase, we’ve tailored our information to match community interests.”

For example, NDPC held a meeting in Stanley to discuss pipelines and the processes in place to ensure proper remediation and address any leaks or incidents that might occur. The organization told residents about the response in the event of a spill in Lake Sakakawea and what industry was doing to protect the lake. 

“We covered the advantages of pipeline development in terms of getting trucks off the roads and reducing congestion on the rails,” Sandstrom says.

While the NDPC can provide general information on topics related to the routing of pipelines, landowner rights, safety measures and environmental protection, Sandstrom says the organization usually can’t speak on behalf of the companies or government entities responsible for a specific project. 

“We don’t get overly involved in that,” she says, “but we have been trying to increase the amount of information we’re getting out there in terms of pipelines and in terms of oil and gas in general in the economy and all the projects in our everyday lives.”

Sandstrom notes that in the battle over DAPL, social media—Facebook, YouTube and other sites—have been used to create misconceptions that once started are difficult to counter.

“The biggest impact communications-wise that I’ve seen is that a lot of people are getting information from social media,” she says. “Whether that’s correct or not, it’s typically been taken as gospel. That’s led to a lot of frustration and misunderstanding.”

Neset says that in addition to becoming more effective at social media, the oil and gas industry might want to reconsider its approach to communications. 

“Should that approach be led, fostered or coordinated in a different way?” she asks. “I think it should because the current process doesn’t appear to be working very well. We have some communications gaps, and that’s a huge understatement.”

Neset believes it’s a matter of prioritizing the message and understanding the audience at which it’s aimed. 

“If your audience is at a town hall meeting in Mohall, North Dakota, that’s a pretty savvy audience,” Neset says. “They know the oil and gas industry and they want to know more because they live it. 

“A young Wall Street entrepreneur—someone who’s only heard tales of what North Dakota’s oil and gas industry is doing—will have a very different perspective based on falsehoods and hearsay,” she explains. “It’s really knowing your audience and prioritizing this issue of communication. Messaging is very, very important.”

As Donald Trump and his tweets proved, life sometimes imitates art. In a scene from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”—a work of fiction set in Mississippi during the 1930s—a candidate for governor explains why he no longer feels the need to “press the flesh” with individual voters. 

While entering a radio station to broadcast a campaign speech, he declares, “We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here. We’re mass communicating!”

By the end of the movie, what saves the candidate’s flagging campaign isn’t his use of radio to reach voters. It‘s his timely exploitation of a wildly popular singing group comprised of three escaped convicts—made famous by the mass audience they reached through radio. The message became more important than the technology used to convey it. 

“There is no standing still,” Neset emphasizes. “Whether it’s the technology, whether it’s our messaging, whether it’s our communications, if you stand still, somebody’s passing you. You have to keep moving forward or you are falling behind. Right now, the industry is falling behind in its efforts to educate and communicate with the rest of the world.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine