January 31, 2011

Test the Waters, but Don’t Assume that Bias is Forever: Deepwater Hasn’t Translated to Deep Trouble for Energy Defendants

By: Dr. Shelley Spiecker


Deepwater horizon


Six months after the public was riveted to press coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf, impact on energy defendants has been less doomsday than feared.  In fact, this is one of the better times in the past 10 years to be an energy defendant in front of a jury.  Why?  Much as the spill itself appeared to dissipate more rapidly than expected, the tide of public opinion has drifted away from concern over the environmental practices of energy companies, and toward concern over the economy.  A recent Pew Research Center survey found the economy was identified as Americans’ top policy priority for 2011 by 87% of respondents.  The public is also focused on resentment of what many perceive as a failure of government to fulfill the promises made in the 2008 election.

In our own focus group and mock trial research and community attitude surveys, economic concerns are prompting individuals and jurors to appreciate the benefit the energy industry brings in terms of jobs and reduced energy prices with increased methods of traditional exploration and production.  As one Colorado juror recently stated, “I came in with a reasonable view of oil and gas companies – that they’re businesses.  They have an obligation to their investors and they have an obligation to make money.”

Speaking in defense of an oil and gas defendant in a mock trial, a Louisiana pastor recently vocalized his support of the defendant by referencing the standard of living the energy industry has afforded his community, I love the oil companies, I think the oil companies are the best friends of south Louisiana.” It also helps that historically, as gasoline prices threaten to increase, public support for expansion of traditional exploration and production practices also increases.1

With jurors’ focused on their own pocket books and a perceived failing of government to improve the lives of average Americans, the energy industry is looking pretty good in comparison.  Of course it also helps that the industry has been more proactive in responding to media attacks  For example, BP’s proactive website appears as the first hit for anyone googling for news about the disaster,  and a November 14, 2010 CBS News’ “60 Minutes” segment entitled “Shale Gas Drilling: Pros and Cons” conveys the industry’s perspective in fair terms.

Are energy companies out of troubled waters yet?  Of course not.  And just like BP’s need to pursue a reassuring presence in the Gulf, energy companies need to continue testing the specific facts of their cases through pretrial research, and pursuing effective public relations campaigns and implementing litigation strategies that highlight actions the company has done well, put business practices in context, and reassure jurors that their general concerns about energy companies need not determine their reactions to the facts in the case at hand.


ResearchBlogging.orgBolsen, T., & Cook, F. (2008). The Polls–Trends: Public Opinion on Energy Policy: 1974-2006 Public Opinion Quarterly, 72 (2), 364-388 DOI: 10.1093/poq/nfn019

Image Credit: EPI2oh, Flickr Creative Commons

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