The Climate Change Professional
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Over the course of the last 300 years we have built an industrial infrastructure based on the energy provided by carbon-based fuels. First it was coal, then came oil and natural gas. That era is coming to an end — the environmental and climate change consequences of this way of life can no longer be tolerated. Therefore, if we are to maintain something close to our current standard of living we need to switch to energy sources that are “green”, that do not generate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Fundamental changes such as this may be necessary, but they are also disruptive and scary.
Specifically, many of the people who currently work in the oil and gas sector now find themselves in a situation where their skills, education and training seem to be no longer relevant or useful. Where do they go from here?
The opportunities and challenges presented by this new world are illustrated in three announcements made within the last few days. The first was an executive action order to do with climate change from the new United States administration. The actions proposed will, it was claimed, create “green jobs”.
At about the same time as the executive order was issued an article in Forbes magazine to do with changes in the oil industry contained the following quotations,
Among the integrated supermajors, ExxonMobil shares fell by 53% <during 2020>, Chevron shares were down 41%, and Royal Dutch Shell shares were down 55%. All three companies have announced layoffs, with Shell announcing it will lay off up to 9,000 people.
Among the pure oil and gas producers, ConocoPhillips shares are down 55% and EOG Resources shares have fallen 58%. Both companies have been scaling back activities, and layoffs may be next.
Also at about the same time, Engine No. 1, activist investor firm, proposing four new ExxonMobil board members,
We believe that ExxonMobil’s Board needs new members who have proven success positioning energy companies for today as well as tomorrow, and who are sufficiently independent from the current Board to ensure a clean break from a strategy and mindset that have led to years of value destruction and poorly positioned the Company for the future.
There are many reasons for the decline in oil company fortunes, the COVID-19 pandemic being one of them. Nevertheless, these swings are not just part of the usual “ups and downs” that the industry has experienced in the past. Climate change is causing a fundamental shift.
The companies themselves are facing their own “Kodak Moments” — how do they maintain revenues and profits from an existing industry, while simultaneously moving out of that industry? Some thought as to how to address this dilemma are provided in the posts Good Business and A Kodak Moment for the Oil Companies.
The professionals who work for these companies are also looking at the same type of transition. What skills are needed in this new world? There are, of course, no easy or sure answers to this question. However, some initial thoughts and suggestions are provided below.
One of the themes of this site is that we face predicaments, not problems. A problem has a solution, a predicament does not. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. At this site we discuss many technical and technological responses to climate change and related challenges. But these technical responses will not “solve” the predicament in which we find ourselves. Climate change is happening now, and regardless of the actions we take, the climate will continue to deteriorate. All that we can do is slow down the rate of change, and/or mitigate the consequences.
This rather gloomy prognosis does not mean that the quality of life will get worse, but it does mean that the systems that we live by will probably become simpler and more basic. Therefore, when considering professional development it probably makes the most sense to pursue work in areas such as food production that satisfy basic needs. (This comment is based partly on personal memories. During the depression my grandfather lost his well paid job. Times were hard and he had trouble finding new employment. However, he eventually found a supervisory position in the financial section of a large bakery. That job provided security in hard times because, no matter how bad the economy was, people had to eat, and bread was a staple food.)
Choice of Discipline
Many types of alternative energy are proposed as being a replacement for carbon-based fuels. The Table of Contents for the book that we are writing lists some of them,
Nuclear power (Gen III, Gen IV and Fusion),
Carbon capture and sequestration, and
For those with a chemical engineering background, projects to do with the use of hydrogen and ammonia as fuels would be a good fit. Geothermal, which still has a very small profile, looks like a good option for those with a background in geology. The development of ocean energy (tides and waves) is a good fit for those with a marine background. Cross-discipline skills, such as process safety management, can be applied to most of these technologies, and fit well with the need for systems thinking, as discussed below.
Mega Project Management
The technologies listed in the previous section are mostly quite simple and established (nuclear fusion being an obvious exception). For example, industry has been producing hydrogen and ammonia on a commercial scale for over a century. In a “green” economy all that would change is that the energy needed to manufacture these commodities would be provided by renewable sources rather than methane.
But most of them do have one thing in common. If they are to be effective, they would have to be applied on a massive scale in a stunningly short period of time. Goals such as ‘Net Zero by 2050’ imply that we have just three decades to make such a transition. Yet, as we have already seen, it took 300 years to build our current, fossil fuel based industrial infrastructure. And, as the post Three Decades illustrates, it can take many years to transform just one part of one industry.
Given this background, the skill that will be most needed is the ability to manage very large, risky projects, something that oil companies are good at.
The new energy infrastructure is based almost entirely on the generation and use of electricity. Wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, hydro — they all generate electricity. Even the exceptions involve the use of electricity. For example, hydrogen will be generated by the electrolysis of water. In some cases the produced hydrogen will be used directly as a fuel in internal combustion engines. But in most cases it will be most efficiently used in fuel cells. In other words, the hydrogen that has been created by electricity will be used to then generate electricity.
The ubiquitous nature of electrical power means that those working in technical fields, regardless of their formal education and professional experience, will benefit from having familiarity with the basics of electrical engineering such as the use of single-line diagrams and the meaning of electrical terminology.
Most of the technologies that have been proposed to address climate change are not new. Therefore, they should not introduce any major safety concerns. For example, alternative fuels such as ammonia and hydrogen are already widely used, so people in the relevant industries know how to handle them safely.
There are, however, two new safety concerns to consider. The first is that alternative energy sources will be used in a different context. Hydrogen may be well understood by those working in oil refineries, but its use in automobiles means that it is being handled by those who do not necessarily understand what they are doing when it comes to the safe handling of a highly flammable gas at very high pressures.
The second safety concern is to do with scale. Using hydrogen as an example once more, it is feasible to monitor the operation of a small number of vehicles, but not when those vehicles are being produced in the millions. The safety environment will change.
Most of the literature to do with climate change is to do with the science that lies behind the topic. As discussed in the post A Ball Lying on the Ground there is now a need to hand over the initiative to engineers, project managers and investors, i.e., those who can develop and implement realistic solutions to the challenges that we face.
Yet even when technical responses are described, they are usually presented in isolation. There is comparatively little thinking of systems effects. The following are examples of systems issues that need to be considered by professionals working in the alternative energy business.
Solar and wind power are intermittent — they are only available when the sun shines or the wind blows, which may also be the time when the demand for power is low. Therefore, any discussion to do with these two sources of energy requires an analysis of the need for a backup power system, or for a means of storing grid-scale quantities of "surplus/unused" energy for 12 hours or more on a regular basis. The discussion also needs also to factor in the costs to do with backups or energy storage systems.
The build-out of any new energy system will itself require massive amounts of energy, most of which will have to come from fossil fuels. We are long way from having an industrial infrastructure in which wind turbines are manufactured using only the energy from wind turbines.
The large scale implementation of a new technology may lead to shortages of raw materials that are needed for its manufacture.
The focus of this web site is on technology, and its application to climate change. But all businesses work within a social framework. Engineers and technical specialists will need to pay special attention to the social impact of what their work in the coming years. The fact that a proposed change makes sense on paper does not mean that members of the public will easily accept that change.