The petroleum industry has a serious image problem both with the general public and with employees. Many of those working in the oil patch are less than complementary when they talk about their employers.
For the last two decades the number of people in the industry has been shrinking. Today’s petroleum industry worker is the survivor of seemingly endless rounds of downsizing. The scar tissue and cynicism has gotten very thick.
Cynicism tends to increase with age. The scarcity of younger employees both reflects and contributes to the pessimism that pervades the industry. While entry level employees lack experience, they can bring a contagious enthusiasm to their work. In the absence of youthful leavening, there is almost a contest as to who can be the most cynical.
Time was when a significant fraction of those entering the industry came from long time oil families. Although I am the first in my family in the oil business, I have known many second, third and even fourth generation oil people. When I started, it was not uncommon to have several generations of one family working for the company. That doesn’t seem to be the pattern anymore.
When my son, who is a graduate student in mechanical engineering, was approached by a major service company about a summer job, he turned them down cold. He told them, “I’m not interested. My mother works for an oil company.” Later, when I tried to explain to him that the technical challenges involved with ultra deep water were comparable to putting a rover on Mars, my words fell on deaf ears. His childhood memories of my perennial worries about job security overshadowed anything I could say. If we have a problem with our own families being interested in the oil industry, imagine the prejudices of the public at large.
Many of us live in communities in which a large number of people work in the oil industry. In that situation, you rarely have to defend your choice of employment and defend the industry as a whole. Instead, there tends to be general commiseration.
Four years ago, I moved from Texas to the environmental stronghold of northern California. When I asked a colleague, how people in the San Francisco area reacted when they learned he worked for an oil company, he replied, “They say, ‘oh how interesting!” and move away very fast.” To my amazement, he was spot on. In some social situations, it was as if I were a leper.
Compounding the situation, my work assignments were not in main stream E&P functions, but rather in global climate change policy and in emerging energy technologies. My work brought me in contact with environmentalists, green energy activists, and government officials, whose agenda is to eliminate use of fossil fuels. I found myself frequently defending my employer and my personal career choice.
You might think that this would further erode my morale. To my surprise, the more I learned about environmental issues and alternative energy, the more I became convinced that those of us in the petroleum industry are providing vital services to the public of which we should be proud.
Most emerging renewable energy technologies are not ready for prime time. For electric power production, wind power is viable and is contributing to the power grid. However, good wind locations are limited and often not near population centers. Solar is still expensive and primarily used for niche applications. Electrical power from wind and solar is intermittent and therefore not dispatchable on demand. In general, renewable energy sources cannot at this time substitute for natural gas as on-demand sources of power for peaking or base-load electrical generation.
Although some hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles are now on the road as part of demonstration projects, hydrogen is a long way from replacing hydrocarbons as the primary transportation fuel. Large hurdles remain in the fundamental science and technologies of hydrogen production from renewable sources as well as in hydrogen storage and distribution.
The more comfortable I became with my career in many aspects of the oil industry, the less harassment I got from the environmental activists. I became better able to explain what I did, why I did it, and that the petroleum industry was not trying to block progress toward cleaner energy; that oil companies are trying to participate in the development of emerging energy technologies so that they can continue to be energy providers when the hydrocarbon era eventually fades away.
Mary Jane Wilson, President of WZI, passed on to me a great ice breaker for talking with environmentalists. Ask them, “Who saved the whales?” The answer is, “the oil industry,” because whales were being hunted to extinction for oil for lighting, which was replaced by kerosene.
Just as the world abandoned whale oil for a better product, someday other more environmentally friendly energy sources will displace petroleum as fuel for transportation and electrical power production. In the meantime, we are not blocking progress, but rather striving to contribute to it, while providing the fuel society needs today.
To provide the energy now required by society for its basic operations, the petroleum industry extracts oil and gas in increasingly harsh environments under more and more rigid environmental standards. We are not spill proof, but considering the enormous volumes produced, we do an incredibly good job and are continually striving to do better. We should be p roud of what we do and not afraid to say so.
If oil workers were to heed the pleas of the environmental extremists and cease producing hydrocarbons, society as we know it would come to a screeching halt. Petroleum workers are as critical to society as doctors, nurses, fire fighters and police. We serve society and should be proud of what we do.
About the Author(s)
Eve Sprunt has worked for major oil companies for over 25 years. She has B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees from MIT and a Ph.D. in geophysics from Stanford University. She is a distinguished member of SPE and has authored 23 U.S. patents, 28 technical publications and over 80 nontechnical articles/editorials.