All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance
By Jamie C. Beard, Esq.
Here we are in our zombie apocalypse holiday season. I’m sitting here at home, isolated with my toddler, eating frozen dinners and generally avoiding the holiday. It is a depressing year no doubt. But I’m also counting my blessings. There are tens of thousands of folks in the oil and gas industry who are unemployed and unsure of their future right now. Some lost their jobs in the past few weeks, right before the holidays. Many feel they will be left out of the energy future that the world is planning. And as oil and gas entities increasingly invest in clean alternatives like solar and wind, many feel forgotten by the very industry they devoted their lives to. This one is for y'all.
Rig life is something to behold. Folks who are busy think tanking and brainstorming policy in cities far away from the oil patch take this for granted, having not witnessed it directly. I spent some months living on rigs while deploying a drilling tool for my startup some years ago, and developed an immense respect for oilfield life and culture. Workers in the oil and gas industry are by far the hardest working people I have ever encountered.
For those who have never visited an oil rig – a fast editorial glimpse: Crews sleep in trailers, often in bunks, amongst constant rig noise, sirens and safety drills, away from family for weeks or months at a time. Rigs are often very remote, hours away from towns and stores. There are few comforts, and it is backbreaking work. If you’ve never seen the art of roughnecks or derrickhands, watch. Some parts of the process have changed since this video was captured, but you get the point. You have to be “on” all the time, or risk injury. This isn’t to mention how freaking hot (or brutally cold) working conditions can be on rigs. Everything is uncomfortable. All of this while constantly covered in an 1/8th inch of dirt - everywhere. On your pillow and in your sheets. In the kitchen. Between your toes. You know that feeling when you accidentally bite down on a piece of eggshell? That, but dirt. You’d think that these folks could probably benefit by unwinding with a beer at the end of the day – but nope. Alcohol isn’t permitted on rigs, even in off time. Random alcohol and drug testing is common, and if you get caught with a trace of anything, you get fired. These folks walk the straight and narrow for weeks at a time doing high stakes, physically challenging jobs. It’s grit. This country’s energy independence was built on this grit.
This industry and culture of hard work has resulted in new geopolitical arrangements in the world, cheap abundant energy, and energy security for the US. Even myself as a climate activist and environmentalist, having witnessed and become friends with rig workers in the oil and gas industry, can’t stand to see the industry villainized. Greenwashing accusations, while often fair, are best launched at the corporate machines that make up the industry at large. Big oil as a corporate structure is very different than the army of rig workers that propel the industry. But it’s the rig workers who often feel villainized. How about we wipe away the polarization, tap into the grit and pride of the oil and gas industry, and bring everyone onboard in building the future of energy. Sounds good right?
But our current state of affairs as humans – the extreme polarization and mistrust of the “other” creeps in here. For folks on the left, engaging with the oil and gas industry is fraught at best, and heresy at worst. For folks on the right, particularly within the ranks of crews, it can be ostracizing to be labeled as a climate sympathizer or environmentalist. It’s all BS. The fact of the matter is, when you put politics, tribalism and the things that divide us aside, we share similar core values, though they may be called different things. An individual concerned with preserving wilderness may be called an environmentalist on one side, and an outdoorsman on the other. A genuine care for wildlife can manifest in vegetarianism on one side, and hunting on the other. We are all only different around the edges if we approach core values with an open mind.
I talked with a Derrickhand who was recently laid off, and scared for his future. He asked to remain anonymous. “Things are too hard for me right now to risk being put on an island” he said. He described worry that speaking his mind would make him a target of both his colleagues in industry, and environmentalists alike. This in itself is awful and surely impeding our progress in solving energy. Here are his words:
I’m one of the statistics you’ve heard about. There are waves of layoffs, and they keep crashing. Every day more of my friends join the ranks of the unemployed. I’ve been in the field for almost twenty years. I’ve been through two downturns before this one. This one is really bad. Before, we always knew things would come back. Oilfield is boom and bust work. But this one has made me consider trying retrain and leaving the industry for good. It took me years to get good at what I do in the oilfield. Rig work requires a lot of training and experience. It seems like such a waste.
I’ll be honest Jamie, when you approached me saying the words “green drilling” I found it irritating. Skepticism in the industry for anything ‘green’ is nearly automatic. For workers like me who are out in the field drilling and fracking wells, we are often demonized for our jobs, and targets of the green movement. Fracking is a political football. Oil and gas is evil. Meanwhile we are out busting our asses doing backbreaking work for the good of the world and country. Where do you think the energy comes from when you turn on the light switch? Why demonize something you use and benefit from every day. It’s so much hypocrisy.
When you work a job that makes you an automatic villain, of course there is going to be hostility and resentment. Oil and gas is essentially the reason environmentalists exist. But from an oil worker point of view, we work hard. We innovate. We changed the world with the frack boom. We have provided hard fought energy security for the US. And we care about the environment. We are closer to wilderness on a daily basis than most environmentalists are. Most of us hunt or fish. We are not that different from hikers or rock climbers or whatever. But we aren’t out yelling at people about it, or demonizing people because of their jobs.
When I asked him about his thoughts on a pivot by industry into geothermal – the ‘green drilling boom’ enabled by drillers using their current skills:
It’s hopeful, which a lot of us need about right now. The oil and gas industry is the most innovative group of people I know. After twenty years in the industry, I have no doubt about our ability to rise to technological challenges. We have the knowledge, technologies and capabilities to do this. We may very well be the only group of people who could do it. And if we make this new energy boom happen industry-wide, we will be stronger as an industry and nation.
So is geothermal an avenue for us all to be more united – left and right? Environmentalists and drillers? Dogs and cats? Sure does look like it.
Leaving the millions of specialized and skilled workers in the industry out of the future is not only to the detriment of a gigantic global workforce, but also to the detriment of our efforts to combat climate change. We have a Ferrari in the oil and gas industry, sitting in the driveway, fueled up and ready to go. That Ferrari could push geothermal energy quickly to global scale. Our alternative here is to thank millions of highly skilled and specialized workers in the oil and gas industry for their service, and dismiss them to go retrain to work on wind turbines, or leave the energy industry altogether. In doing this, we would lose a hundred years of energy innovation.
Biden announced his climate team this week. They look to be a motivated and dedicated group of individuals. I hope they will consider that everyone needs to have a role and be part of the future, and that we need to look at the assets we have on the table – including the idle ones - and have some courage and vision. Look to the millions of highly skilled workers in the oil patch and think geothermal. We can build the future together by bringing everyone into the clean energy tent, while at the same time saving jobs, maintaining energy independence, and developing TWs of clean energy.
Operators, you need to step up here too with some vision and courage, instead of laying off thousands of workers within your core competencies and trying to Frankenstein yourselves into becoming solar producers. The greatest asset you have to solve climate change are the same employees that made oil and gas what it is today: your geologists, geophysicists, petroleum engineers, rig workers, et. al. You’ve relied on their grit to build the industry. Now they need to rely on you to make them part of your vision for the future.
In reflecting this Christmas morning on what the year to come holds, I hope for our opportunity to convene, extend olive branches, find a rare place where we can all agree on a way forward, and move forward together to a place where the words ‘green’ and ‘drilling’ can exist in harmony in the same sentence. Let’s kick off the green drilling boom in 2021, and beat 2050 climate goals while we’re at it.