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The Energy Industry, Lacking in Public Trust

Yesterday's panel discussion in Washington, DC on "The Trust Factor" in energy couldn't have been more timely. The stakes for lost trust seemed especially apparent against the backdrop of an EU probe into allegations of price fixing in the spot oil market, involving some of the industry's largest players, and coverage of the IRS and Associated Press wiretapping scandals.  The session was hosted by The Energy Collective and communications firm Edelman, which presented the energy-related findings from its latest annual Trust Barometer.  The theme of this year's survey was a "Crisis of Leadership."

Edelman found a small improvement in the US public's trust for the energy industry, compared to last year.  Yet energy's trust level of 59%, which is slightly better than government's 53%, falls far short of the 80% trust score for the technology sector, followed by the automotive, food and beverage, and alcoholic beverage industries in the 70%'s. Energy's position isn't encouraging, considering its importance to the overall economy, but the details resist a blanket assessment.  Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) enjoyed a big jump in trust from 2012 to 2013, up to 70%.

Trust levels within energy differed widely by energy source, with a 30% gap between renewables, which garnered 65%, and oil at 35%.  Natural gas and utilities came in near the average for energy as a whole, reflecting closer customer connections for the latter, and the technology-driven, cost-saving growth of the former, notwithstanding concerns about hydraulic fracturing.  Although renewables have been involved in some messy bankruptcies and an ongoing debate over subsidies, their reduced environmental impacts and links to cutting-edge R&D puts them closer to the technology end of the trust spectrum.  Oil--arguably just as technology-focused as renewables--suffers from the fallout from events like Deepwater Horizon, and perceptions of inadequate stakeholder engagement.  Yet this disparity in trust levels also creates mutually beneficial opportunities for partnership.

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