The Peculiar Symbiosis of the Outdoor Recreation and Oil and Gas Industries

14er parking lot

To me, as well as others in my home state, the question of which environmental impacts of which industries are examined in detail, and how that is, or is not covered in the news is always a bit mysterious. Because there is oil and gas production here, we can read op-eds from voices you might not otherwise hear from.
From 2018 here in the Denver Post.

Western Energy Alliance welcomes the Outdoor Industry Association and its Outdoor Retailer show to Denver. The oil and natural gas industry is full of outdoor enthusiasts like myself who love to hike, camp, hunt, fish, paddle, climb, etc. We appreciate the myriad products that enhance the outdoor experience and protect us from the elements.

We’d also like to say you’re welcome. Without oil and natural gas, the outdoor industry and its customers couldn’t enjoy the great outdoors. Most obvious is the fuel to get people to remote wilderness areas or far-away national parks and to deliver goods to retail outlets.

What’s not so obvious is that just about every article of outdoor clothing and piece of gear is made from oil and natural gas. Spandex, nylon, fleece, Gore-Tex, plastics, high-tech lightweight fills, and other synthetic materials used in outdoor recreation products are engineered from petroleum.

Despite that symbiotic relationship, the Outdoor Industry Association and some of its member companies are often at odds with the oil and natural gas industry. From advocating against hydraulic fracturing to opposing responsible energy development on non-park, non-wilderness public lands, the outdoor industry often opposes the oil and natural gas on which it depends. Is it a cynical “greenwashing” ploy to sell more of its petroleum-based products while hoping the public doesn’t notice the hypocrisy?

(Personally, I don’t believe that’s the case).

As an advocacy organization, the outdoor industry often makes the point that outdoor recreation provides $887 billion in consumer spending and employs 7.6 million people. The association likes to tout its job numbers and argue that outdoor retailers’ economic impact is larger than the oil and natural gas industry. However, using similar economic modeling PricewaterhouseCoopers finds, in a study for the American Petroleum Institute, that oil and natural gas supports 10.3 million jobs and $1.3 trillion in economic impact.

All jobs and economic opportunity are to be applauded. The good news is it’s not a zero-sum game. A job in the oil and natural gas industry doesn’t mean one less in the recreation industry. In fact, the prosperity brought on by producing oil here and not importing it from Russia or Venezuela ultimately leads to more Americans who can afford the latest high-tech climbing gear or a vacation to put it to use.

Even if the OR industry brought more into the economy than O&G, they necessarily depend, as right now, we all do, on O&G production and use for those jobs and spending. Personally, I don’t believe that buying or selling stuff made from oil and gas, in stores heated with oil and gas, for people who drive to recreate in vehicles powered by gas and lubricated by oil, is essentially more virtuous than providing oil and gas for transport, heating and electricity for everyone, young and old, rich and poor, disabled or not, who shop at Walmart or REI. I can’t understand the idea that industries that consume energy based on fossil fuels are more virtuous that industries that produce it. Especially since people need heat and electricity, and probably don’t need marijuana, a lift ticket, or even, this one’s tough.. beer.

3 thoughts on “The Peculiar Symbiosis of the Outdoor Recreation and Oil and Gas Industries”

  1. CU Professor Patty Limerick, in her deeper, thought-provoking way, has noted “areas of kinship” between the two industries. Here are a few she discussed.
    Both have:
    • Capacity to create substantial environmental disturbance.
    • Embrace capitalism and drive for profit.
    • Provide jobs and multiplier effects in in their communities.
    • Depend on transportation and fossil fuels.
    • The jobs in both can be dangerous and invisible to beneficiaries.
    • Participants see themselves as innocents; puzzled, defensive and “grumpy” when

    • Thanks for sharing Professor Limerick’s ideas.. I think I have something she wrote on that squirreled away somewhere and I will post it.

      And before there was a politically powerful recreation industry, and before the oil and gas business became a big target, folks in the timber industry felt the same way. In fact, where there is still a thriving timber industry, that industry plays much of the same role in environmental discourse that oil and gas currently plays in Colorado.

      Fortunately, we have a friendly northern neighbor with plenty of forests which provides much of the wood products we use, so we don’t have to produce it ourselves. It hasn’t proven to be that simple or easy in world markets with oil and gas.

  2. I would add that some of the key revenue that supports recreation and conservation on public lands comes from royalties or taxes on oil and gas. The much heralded LWCF fund is royalty revenue on oil/gas in the gulf. The Recreational Trails Program that provides grants for public lands is a share of vehicle gas tax. Here in Washington State, the NOVA fund that is key to USFS and DNR recreation support also comes from vehicle gas tax.

    There are no true options put out for replacements for these funds. There is a bill in the Washington State legislature right now that would put a sales tax on certain types of outdoor goods to support the wildlife account. These all have to be vetted since each dedicated funding measure has its downside. Moving away from oil and gas has the same problems for public land maintenance that it does for highways and bridges.


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