Certified-responsible oil and gas - we need it now!

The author at an oil production site in Ecuador. Photo: David Poritz.
The author at an oil production site in Ecuador. Photo: David Poritz.
The oil and gas industry is disrupting communities and damaging ecosystems worldwide, writes David Poritz. Tough, independent social and environmental standards for the industry can bring urgently-needed improvements to company practices - even where government regulation has failed.
Decades of oil development have left a legacy of environmental destruction and societal disruption in scores of rural and indigenous communities in the Amazon region.

With climate talks taking place in Bonn this week - the first to follow Ban Ki Moon's UN climate summit in New York - it is clearer than ever that a transition away from fossil fuels is essential to averting climate disaster.

And yet global demand for fossil fuels is on the rise, and production of crude oil and natural gas is expanding to meet that demand.

With much of the easiest-to-reach oil and gas reserves on the decline, exploration and production activities are moving into remote areas previously untouched by resource extraction or any industrial activity.

Many of these areas lie in countries with emerging economies whose governments view fossil fuel development as the best or only prospect for lifting large segments of the population out of poverty.

This perception often leads to regimes enabling or undertaking development projects with little or no regard for how they might affect the environment or communities.

Damaging oil development - from the Amazon to the USA

Over the last 10 years, I have encountered these converging factors across the Amazon Basin. Decades of oil development have left a legacy of environmental destruction and societal disruption in scores of rural and indigenous communities in the region, with new development predicted to continue for decades more.

The fallout from irresponsible oil and gas development can be seen in many places beyond the Amazon. While it is concentrated in developing regions like the Niger Delta, it can also be found in and around the developed world as well - from the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico to water contamination from shale gas development in the Northeastern US.

Some activists say that the best solution to the social, public health, and environmental ills caused by reckless oil and gas development is to halt all development activities.

But the reality is that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of oil and gas development projects currently under way worldwide, with thousands more on the verge of coming online to meet surging demand.

In addition, many communities welcome fossil fuel development as an economic boon, despite being aware of the environmental and public health risks it carries.

How do we end careless oil and gas development practices?

Faced with those realities in the context of my experiences in the Amazon, I became determined to figure out how to ensure current and future development projects would not produce long-term damage.

Government regulations, whether in the US, Ecuador, or anywhere else in the world, are often inadequate, incomplete, or unenforced. Local communities, whether they support development projects in their area or not, are often shut out of the planning and development processes.

This leaves them with little to no knowledge of how, where, or when fossil fuel development will take place and no available mechanisms to request accommodations for social and environmental sensitivities.

Decades of oil development have left a legacy of environmental destruction and societal disruption in scores of rural and indigenous communities in the Amazon region.

Social and environmental practices in the oil and gas industry vary widely, from negligent to innovative and exemplary. I wondered what could be done to shift industry norms to the higher end of the spectrum, and concluded that it should begin with empowering communities directly affected by development and creating systems to measure best practices.

If given a place at the table, the people living and working near development sites could guide developers toward practices that respected local communities. If provided a metric for measuring social and environmental performance, developers could draw roadmaps for continual improvement.

Equitable Origin oil and gas

With those goals in mind, I founded Equitable Origin (EO), a private company that creates and certifies compliance with performance standards that represent best and leading practices in the oil and gas industry

I began by consulting with all stakeholders in oil and gas development: indigenous communities in the Amazon affected by development, oil and gas companies, academics, government agencies, and social and environmental non-profit groups.

The EO100TM Standard is the first guidance of its kind in the oil and gas industry. It applies to individual exploration and development sites, not companies, to ensure that practices are evaluated based on actual day-to-day performance and outcomes.

The voluntary performance standards that make up EO100 work with the market. Oil and gas companies have an incentive to seek out EO100 certification, which serves as a clear signal to local communities, investors, regulators, and competitors that they are dedicated to the highest level of social and environmental performance at their certified sites.

The world's first 'certified-responsible' oil production site

Initial results from the EO certification system are promising. Equitable Origin recently certified its first site, designating the world's first certified-responsible oil production operation.

The site is comprised of two oil fields in Colombia operated by Toronto-based Pacific Rubiales Energy, and their certification was confirmed by third-party auditing body Deloitte Colombia.

The site is a major producer, pumping out about 250,000 barrels of oil per day, approximately one quarter of Colombia's national oil output.

The EO100 Standard is not perfect, and the first site certification taught us valuable lessons that we are applying to the ongoing review and improvement process. That process, as with all things we do at EO, is completely transparent, and we invite everyone to download the standard and submit comments.

EO is also completely independent - we accept fees for the certification services we provide, but do not accept financial support from oil and gas companies in the form of donations or investments-we are funded by socially conscious investors outside of the oil and gas sector.

The time is right for higher standards - everywhere

As we work toward the global, long-term goal of moving away from fossil fuels to curb climate change, we must take steps to clean up oil and gas development practices that are affecting lives today.

The geographic expansion of development into increasingly fragile areas underscores the urgency of that mission. Although Equitable Origin was founded in the jungles of Latin America, we look forward to applying the EO100 Standard to many other parts of the globe.

This includes the United States, our home country and the world's leading oil producer. The US shale development boom enabled by hydrofracking has no shortage of ill social and environmental effects that could be curbed by the EO100 Standard, or something like it.

It is easy to vilify the oil and gas industry as a whole and clamor for cessation of fossil fuel production and consumption as a solution to associated social and environmental problems. It's more difficult to dig into the actual practices of the industry, highlight the best ones, and try to make them more common.

The Equitable Origin system and EO100 Standard use this more difficult but more pragmatic method. A set of independent, stakeholder-based, voluntary standards isn't the only viable approach, but it's one that we believe can make a real difference.



David Poritz is President and Co-Founder of Equitable Origin. His interest in the impacts of oil development on the environment and Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon rain forest began at the age of 12, and led him to make dozens of trips to the region in the following 13 years. His experiences there as a human rights advocate and social entrepreneur led him to found Equitable Origin in 2009.

David was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and holds an undergraduate degree from Brown University where he was a Harry S. Truman Scholar. His work is the focus of the 2014 PBS documentary, 'Oil & Water'.

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