When we launched the Fuels Institute 10 years ago, one of our objectives was to bridge the gap that existed between stakeholders. Yes, we wanted to produce objective analyses of key market issues, but we also recognized that if the critical stakeholders in the transportation sector remained siloed, achieving meaningful improvements in the market would be much more challenging. As someone who had engaged in the political battles over the ultra-low sulfur diesel program, the Renewable Fuel Standard and a variety of other issues, I knew how disruptive this lack of coordination could be. Therefore, I consider one of the greatest achievements of the Fuels Institute in its first 10 years is the breadth, diversity and inclusivity of our Board of Advisors and contributor organizations. We have certainly bridged some gaps and brought people together in the spirit of collaboration and education.
Who are we?
Our Board is comprised of more than 60 individuals representing the full spectrum of the transportation energy sector. Unfortunately, some see the name “Fuels Institute” and assume we are a petroleum-based organization. Certainly, there is a legacy connection to this sector due to our origins in the convenience industry, but from day one we defined “fuels” as including all forms of energy that could power transportation. And that approach has roots in the convenience industry as well. I remember testifying before a Senate committee once and telling them that fuel retailers are willing to sell anything if there is demand for the product, they have a legal way of selling it and there is some profit to be made. “They will sell liquefied chicken McNuggets if that is what the market will support,” I remember telling the Senators.
We have remained true to the mission of evaluating all energy sources, and this is reflected in the composition of our Board of Advisors. Not only do we include representatives from the liquid fuel sector, including petroleum and biofuel companies, we also benefit from the perspective of electric vehicle charging companies, hydrogen vehicle and equipment manufacturers, natural gas distributors, fleet operators and a host of technical experts with a breadth of experience that greatly benefits our efforts. Only by including all sectors of the market can we be confident that our approach remains objective and that we are addressing the key issues affecting the transportation sector.
Energy Policy has Polarized
Over the past 10 years the market has changed as have the politics that influence policy. For example, when I was engaged in government relations it was pretty easy to identify where a legislator may fall on a particular energy issue based upon the constituents they served. Midwest legislators were likely to support biofuels policies whereas those in the Gulf Coast states were more inclined to support petroleum policies. Of course, political party affiliation influenced their considerations but that support of core products coming from their constituents was strong.
Today, this does not necessarily seem to be the case. Political discourse in the United States has elevated the influence of party affiliation and routinely limits the willingness and ability of legislators to work across party lines, even on behalf of their constituent interests. Too often, individuals are judged not on the quality of their ideas but by their declared or even assumed political affiliation.
This political polarization also has affected the discussions about energy. With climate change and reducing carbon emissions dominating the energy policy agenda throughout the world, many stakeholders seem to have retreated into their own echo chambers and tend to disregard the ideas of those who do not fully agree with them. This has resurrected an us vs them type of environment and stymied progress on discovering collaborative and effective solutions. The urge to prove one’s position as “right” often seems to outweigh the desire to find effective solutions, especially if those solutions are not perfectly lined up with one’s own agenda.
This polarization leads many to ignore and scorn any information that does not support their established position or that originates from outside their silos. It is easy to disregard information if one automatically seeks to discredit the source. Unfortunately, sometimes people reach judgements about sources of information not based upon the information provided, but based upon their assumption relative to the name of the source.
Board members have reported that they often hear from others who assume “Fuels Institute” is a petroleum advocacy group. We have read comments on some of our LinkedIn posts seeking to discredit our commentary by arguing that the word “fuel” in our name means we are a proxy for the fossil fuel industry. It is clear that critics are not aware of our research methodologies nor our stated mission as a non-advocacy industry group. To put it bluntly, our Board members are in the business of making money and this requires science and fact-based research. The truer the research, the easier it is to see the pathway to successful, clean transportation, business models. Without peer reviewed science and research, we are whistling in the dark and pretending all is good.
Our Board of Advisors commissions, reviews and publishes research and analyses that are objective and as balanced as an organization can deliver. It is very unfortunate if some tend to discount the research without reading it because of ill-informed assumptions about who we are.
The divisiveness I have described above is destructive. It impedes efforts to educate stakeholders and limits the ability to identify creative solutions that benefit not just the environment but the market in general and consumers in particular. We have to find a way to bridge these gaps.
We Must Come Together
To overcome this polarization, we must bring people together. When we come together face to face, we have the ability to engage, understand and build trust. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we have to get past these presumptions of faults and toxic biases. It might be easier to cast shade on others, but it does not result in solutions.
What the Fuels Institute seeks to offer is a safe environment, void of an advocacy agenda, in which stakeholders with different priorities and ideas can come together to learn from one another. Our events, our research agenda, our speaking engagements – all are designed to unify stakeholders to find effective solutions to the challenges facing the market.
Last year at the end of FUELS22, an attendee who focuses on electric vehicle charging infrastructure admitted to me that her network is somewhat limited to those focused on the electric vehicle market and she previously had not spent much time engaging with the traditional transportation energy market. She then expressed how valuable it was to hear from others within that market about the challenges and opportunities they are experiencing – it provided her with a broader perspective about the new market dimension she is helping to build. It is this level of awareness and respect that we all must seek to foster.
Optimism for the Future of Transportation Energy
I was recently asked whether I thought collaboration among different stakeholders could result in meaningful change in the way we approach the transportation energy sector and the policies that affect it. I admit that for most of my career I have been a cynic – there have been few examples of stakeholders putting the greater good before their parochial interests. But my view has evolved – the ability of diverse stakeholders to come together to lead the Fuels Institute in a collaborative way has restored some hope in my mind that perhaps there is potential. Our organization is just one voice, but it is an example of what can happen when people set aside their agendas and seek to listen, share and understand. These are transformational times and the decisions and actions we take today are critical for our futures.
As we begin the next 10 years, the Institute will remain laser focused on discovering and evaluating transportation energy solutions; we will continue to expand our network to include any and all with an interest in transportation energy; and we will continue to advocate for collaboration, for well-informed decisions and constructive dialogue among all stakeholders. Maybe I am becoming naïve as I get older, but I do believe there is reason to be optimistic about the future of transportation energy.