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In Conversation: David Poritz '12

Climate change the ‘issue of our time’

David Poritz ’12, a Rhodes Scholar who founded Equitable Origin in 2009 to create a set of environmental and social standards for oil and gas companies, visited campus last week for a series of events about “Oil and Water,” a documentary that featured Poritz and his work. “Oil and Water,” which examined the impact of oil development in Ecuador, was this year’s First Readings assignment for incoming first-years, marking the first time a film rather than a book was assigned. He sat down with The Herald to discuss the project’s origins and aims.


The Herald: Why did you start Equitable Origin?

David Poritz: I started Equitable Origin based on about six years of previous work in Latin America. Since the age of about 12, I had been working in the Andean Amazon region, specifically in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. I had worked with a group of lawyers who were very involved in environmental and social litigation that was seeking to bring benefits to communities that had been affected by oil development. It was out of those experiences working on that lawsuit that we (became) very familiar with the issues associated with oil and gas development, that I saw the need to develop better standards to address the whole realm of environmental and social factors.


What does Equitable Origin do? How would you describe its mission?

Equitable Origin developed the first set of environmental and social standards for the oil and gas industry, so that’s kind of at the center of what we do. We brought together industry and indigenous (communities) and local communities and NGOs to agree and negotiate what they felt best practices were, and we consolidated those views into a set of standards. Those standards are used to verify and eventually certify a company’s performance, or specifically an oil site’s performance.


How far along is Equitable Origin? Have you started certifying companies yet?

We did a very large global consultation process, and just actually in August, we certified the first two sites in Colombia so a company called Pacific Rubiales Energy (was) the first company to gain certification on two of (its) largest sites. It’s a big milestone for us because it equates to 25 percent of Colombia’s national production, about 250,000 barrels a day. We’re at a stage where we’ve developed our standards, we’ve implemented them, and we have the first certified sites.


What’s the incentive for oil and gas companies to get certified with Equitable Origin?

The first reason is reputational. Companies want to be able to differentiate themselves between them and their competition, so it serves as a tool to basically independently show that they are performing using best practices. The second thing is risk. A lot of companies are exposed to very significant legal and reputational risk if they implement poor practices — for example, lawsuits or campaigns against those companies. So by implementing our standards at a site level, these companies find that it’s helping them mitigate a lot of the environmental and social risks that come with development. The last point is, for institutional investors, it serves as a tool to address the concerns of many investors who are saying, “I want to invest in a company, but I want to make sure that that company is operating under best standards.”


Why focus on improving oil and gas when you could focus on sustainable, long-term energies?

The issue of our generation, the issue of our time, is absolutely climate change. But we also have to address what’s taking place in a lot of these countries where a lot of the governments and a lot of private-sector actors are continuing to develop oil and gas resources, because currently our energy mix is still largely geared towards combustible fuels and to hydrocarbons. And while we transition away from oil and gas as quickly as we can, it’s imperative that we also have systems to mitigate the challenges and the impact associated with the development of oil and gas.


What role do you think Brown played in the establishment of Equitable Origin and in your personal growth on the issue?

Brown was fundamental in terms of my ability to create the system. As a second-semester sophomore, I left Brown for three semesters, and Brown supported my departure because they thought the work I was doing was important. I had a number of faculty here that were instrumental in guiding me and advising me as I developed the work that I was doing. It was the support that I gained both from the University as well as specifically from faculty that enabled me to refine the concept. The University pushed me in a positive way to actually get out there and do it, and I think that without having that academic and institutional support, it would’ve been really hard.


Is there anything else you want readers to know about you or about Equitable Origin?

I think that when many people think about the oil and gas industry, they think about how negative it is and the impact that it has on our global society. I think that that’s a legitimate concern, but I also think it’s critical that we look at our reliance on that industry as individuals. It’s critical that we look at ways in which we can immediately improve the production practices for those that are most affected on the ground while also recognizing that we do need to invest dramatically in moving away from these resources. So I think that it’s important for people to look at how these resources affect and interact with our daily lives and what we can do to begin to mitigate those impacts.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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