Michael Binnion is, on the surface, a stereotypical Canadian oilman: he was born in Calgary, was a numbers guy in university, and then went into the business of launching energy companies. But he has since broken with the pack on one key element. Now, as the head of Questerre Energy Corp., a natural gas company, he is speaking loudly in defence of the natural gas industry. He spars with critics on Twitter. He blogs. And the Alberta boy learned French in his quest to convince Quebeckers that hydraulic fracturing, the controversial extraction technique, is safe.
Why have you put yourself out there on the Internet?
My sense this whole social Internet and social media is the biggest democratization of information since the printing press. I think that it has created a change in expectations – people now expect to have a direct say in things, not just be informed.
Why did you choose a blog and Twitter?
The blog came in December, 2010, and it was about how to basically bypass the mainstream media. Initially there was a lot of mainstream media interest in Quebec. But once they heard our message and published our message, they weren’t all that interested in republishing them, because there’s no new story there. But the issue itself, whether the local development of natural gas is acceptable in Quebec, that issue didn’t go away.
Twitter came in October, 2011, as way to further distribute and get exposure on social media. But also to be able to try to stop rumours and allegations – the untrue ones, of course – from gaining traction on social media because my feeling is once something hits the mainstream media, a letter to the editor isn’t going to stop that issue.
Aren’t you just seen as a shill for your industry?
Sure. The biggest complaint people try to dismiss me with is: ‘Well, you’re from industry and you’re biased.’ Well, my answer is: ‘Just because I’m biased doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And so you have to engage my argument. Don’t say my argument is wrong because I’m biased. Tell me what’s wrong with my argument.’ The difference between me and lots of industry opponents is my bias is transparent, my bias is disclosed, my bias is obvious, and you can look at my arguments in the context of my bias and fairly assess them.
Have you convinced anyone to see it your way yet?
With people who are ideologically opposed, our objective is not to convince them. We might be trying to blunt their message when they make allegations that are untrue. We have been very successful in moving their arguments along so that as we debunk certain arguments, they move on to new arguments. That’s obviously a type of success, that we don’t allow those arguments to sit in the public’s mind and become their fixed perception and thus their fixed reality.
What do your counterparts thinking about your approach?
When I first started, people didn’t understand. I would imagine today there’s still a lot of people who don’t understand. But I think more and more people are saying: ‘Yeah, industry does have to do something and what you’re doing is helpful.’ I have had some feedback from people who are saying: ‘Hey, you know what? Maybe if you would just be quiet, this would go away.’
The PR strategy of the oil and gas industry for over 40 years was just go under the radar, and be quiet, let it blow over and it will all go away. I think that was successful in the past. But if you accept my premise that we’re in a changed cultural dynamic, then the old way isn’t going to work any more. I’m 100-per-cent convinced the old approach doesn’t work any more.
Does it feel as if the other natural gas CEOs are leaving you out to dry?
No, I think we’re winning and making good progress. It is more [that] I feel like I’m in the hot seat than being hung out to dry and I don’t think anybody in industry did it to me.
Why did you learn French?
I was intimidated to go into the nationalistic core of Quebec as an English-only speaker to talk to them about why we were bringing our industry to the heart of French Canada. I felt that I would be criticized for that.
To my great surprise, it wasn’t so much that you spoke French that was the issue – the issue was do you respect that they speak French. I found I got a very positive reception because we went in with full respect that this was a French place, with French presentations with a French translator, with our very best effort to give them the information in French. So in the end it was not about do we speak French, it was about do we respect them.
As we got into the debate, I realized it was just so inefficient to try to be part of the debate in another language because you don’t always have a translator there and not everybody wants to be patient enough to deal with a translator. I started taking French lessons about a year-and-a-half ago. I have sort of reached a low level of fluency – enough that my meetings with the government are always in French. We’ll switch into English from time to time. I have people there who speak French and fill me in on what I miss.
Title President and CEO, Questerre Energy Corp.
Personal Born in Calgary; 52 years old
Education A chartered accountant with a Bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Alberta
Career highlights From 1996 to 2000 he was president of CanArgo Energy, one of the first Western companies to engage in oil and gas exploration in the Republic of Georgia.
Played an active role in helping introduce legislation and a regulatory framework for the oil and gas industry in the country