It may be making more money than ever, but the fossil fuel industry is rapidly losing whatever semblance of social licence it could still cling to. And despite the high salaries on offer, more and more young people are turning their backs on this most toxic of sectors, as evidence of its pathological greed, deceit and ecocidal business model becomes ever more incontrovertible. I filed this piece for the Business Post in February.
THE BIGGEST TV show of the 1980s, Dallas, followed the fortunes of the Ewings, a family of oil tycoons in Texas, and showcased their glamorous, opulent lifestyles, as well as the wheeling and dealing and back-stabbing in the industry.
Fast forward to the 2020s and the industry is arguably more profitable than ever. In 2022, the combined profits of ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Total, BP and Equinor surged to nearly $250 billion, the highest in their history. It is, however, unlikely in the extreme that there will ever be another major TV show lionising the oil billionaires.
According to Bernard Looney, the Kerry-born chief executive of BP, “there’s a view that this is a bad industry, and I understand that”. Looney took over at BP in February 2020 and recognised that the entire sector was “socially challenged”, and struggling to recruit new talent to replace an ageing workforce.
“Good people don’t come to work for a bad company – good people have choices; a lot of people are really energised about what we’re doing,” Looney said in an interview shortly after his appointment. He committed to cutting BP’s oil and gas production by 40 per cent by 2030, on the path to a promise of “net zero” by 2050.
That was then. Earlier this month, fresh from announcing record profits, BP quietly scrapped the 40 per cent target, downgrading it to 20 to 30 per cent. Explaining his change of heart, Looney said: “At the end of the day, we’re responding to what society wants.” In truth, this has nothing to do with society and is simply about short-term gain for shareholders.
This is not BP’s first rodeo. In the early 2000s, it famously rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and began investing in renewables. A few years later, to help pay off the costs of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it sold off its renewables division. If money talks, nothing speaks louder than the easy fortunes to be made from simply digging up oil and gas and selling it at a huge mark-up.
At a commencement speech last May, António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, implored the young university graduates he was addressing to turn their backs on dirty industries.
“Despite mountains of evidence of looming climate catastrophe, we still see mountains of funding for coal and fossil fuels that are killing our planet. But we know investing in fossil fuels is a dead end, economically and environmentally,” Guterres said. “You hold the cards; don’t work for climate-wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future”.
The message is getting through. Despite the high salaries on offer, the number of US business school graduates choosing careers in oil or gas has fallen by over 40 per cent in the last 15 years. Graduate numbers from petroleum engineering courses in America have slumped by 83 per cent in the last five years, while Imperial College London and the University of Calgary have cancelled postgraduate courses in petroleum geoscience.
Imperial College’s website states that “suspending both MSc Petroleum courses provides us with the opportunity to reassess the skillset needed in today’s broader geo-energy industry”. While the oil and gas is still flowing, the pipeline of new talent into these dirtiest and most deceptive of industries is rapidly drying up.
An EY study in 2017 found that the young were “much less likely” than older people to believe that fossil fuels were good for society. Two thirds of the 16 to 19-year-olds surveyed described the idea of working for the industry as unappealing.
The term ‘climate quitting’ has now entered the vernacular to describe how more and more people are turning their backs on industries that are seen to be helping destroy the planet.
Last summer, students at leading US universities disrupted on-campus recruitment events being hosted by Exxon Mobil, the energy giant that has, over the last decade, spent millions on advertising its commitment to producing ‘clean’ energy via biofuels from algae. In recent weeks, just as it announced record 2022 profits from oil and gas, it scrapped its algae research investments in a move that would likely have drawn gasps of admiration from JR Ewing, the arch-villain of Dallas, himself.
At Shell’s 2021 annual meeting, Charles Holliday, its then chairman, recalled a conversation with an employee who told him that their 13-year-old daughter was embarrassed to tell her friends at school that her dad works for Shell. Ben van Beurden, the company’s then chief executive, said in 2019 that when his daughter was ten years old, she came home from school one day crying because she’d heard oil and gas companies were destroying the planet.
In both cases, these senior executives invoked emotive references to children to convey the impression that they were personally committed to steering their business towards a safer future. Today, Shell is making more money than ever selling planet-destroying fossil fuels. And this industry wonders why it has a credibility and recruitment problem.
Later this month, entries will close for the long-running Texaco Children’s Art competition. Texaco is owned by Valero Energy, a corporation with a long track record of lobbying against climate action, a position that threatens the future of the very children who are encouraged to enter their art for consideration.
The Irish Museum for Modern Art last year cut its links with this competition, and it is well past time that our schools and media outlets followed suit.
Any young Irish person considering a career in the oil industry is unlikely to have been swayed by the recent appearance on Newstalk radio by David Horgan, chairman of Petrel Resources, where he flatly denied basic climate science, stating that “there is no crisis”.
Who could possibly want to build a future in an industry so mired in denial and stuck in the past?