Forty-odd years ago, about to graduate from university, I received my first job offer, from BP. I accepted instantly. Oil was the industry of the moment. North Sea oil and gas was being developed, offering the UK a degree of freedom from the power of Opec and the risk of embargoes. The combination of economics and politics and the idea of working for a great company operating on a world stage was irresistible. Now I’m often asked by students or their parents if they should consider a job in the sector. Would I make the same decision now?
Things have certainly changed. The oil and gas industry is under attack on many sides. Vilified by environmentalists for its contribution to the continuing growth in emissions and global warming, it faces an increasing number of court challenges from those seeking to prove the liability of individual companies for the damage done by climate change. At a different level of the debate, the industry is seen by some investors as vulnerable to the loss of market share and profitability as renewables, helped on by falling costs and public policy support, take up an ever-larger volume of demand.
So given this perception of the industry as one whose best days are past, what would advise someone starting out? I would say yes, work in the sector – but choose your employer with care. Many large companies in many sectors are unpopular and face fundamental competitive challenges. Think of Amazon or Volkswagen. But few – the tobacco industry is an obvious exception – attract the visceral hostility that confronts the oil and gas sector or the epithet of” dinosaurs”, relics of the past destined to extinction. Who would want to work for a dirty dinosaur?
That is the fashionable view but it is too superficial. If you are offered a job in the industry, you should be asking what future the company envisages for itself. One of the greatest pleasures of working in the energy business is the length of the horizon. The companies – especially the oil majors – think and plan on the basis of a 30- to 40-year strategy. That, after all, has been the lifespan of all major provinces from the North Sea to Alaska.
Given this refreshingly long perspective, all the companies should now have strategies that take them to the middle of the century. Of course, the details will evolve continuously, but it is the underlying strategic approach that matters. Such thinking is what distinguishes creative companies from dinosaurs trapped in their past successes. It has allowed the majors to adapt and remain relevant and successful through more than a century of war, political upheaval and dramatic economic change.