The executives leaving oil and gas behind for jobs in clean energy

Beats the view at an oilfield.
Beats the view at an oilfield.
Image: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
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Edinburgh, Scotland

Elaine Buck grew up in the oilfields of Texas. She started her career as a navigation engineer on seismic research vessels for Schlumberger, a big oil-services company, and worked her way to high up in the executive ranks, with a salary to match. So how has this American hydrocarbon specialist ended up living in the tiny, remote Orkney islands off northern Scotland, and working at the forefront of renewable energy?

The answer is a mix of ideology, opportunity, and economics—a combination of factors pushing people out of extractive industries and into cleaner alternatives around the world. For those with specific expertise, like Buck, deep experience working offshore has led many to move from oil and gas to the complex parallel challenges of ocean energy.

With a degree in marine science, Buck says she has “a very strong love of the ocean.” For 17 years, starting in 1992, she traveled the world with Schlumberger in a “fantastic career” that took her from Houston to Mexico, Denver, back to Houston, Bogata, to Mexico again, and on to Malaysia.

She learned a lot, she tells Quartz, but adds that she “was seeing the effects of the commercialization and the rapid exploration we were doing to try and pull as much oil out of the ground as quickly as possible.”

From an environmental perspective, “I was starting to get, you know… I was having the doubts,” she says. Those doubts crystalized in April 2010, when a massive explosion tore through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

“That really opened my eyes,” Buck says. “And I thought: ‘You know what, I have another 15 to 20 years in the energy sector. I can now make a difference in helping [to] move from a high fossil fuel industry to a low carbon industry.” She knows that’s not going to happen overnight, but pointed to developments in international policy—like the global climate agreement made in Paris at the end of last year—that support her view that the shift is unavoidable.

In August 2014 she joined the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, in a role helping wave- and tidal-power projects develop and test their technologies.

The family dynamic

For Benj Sykes, head of asset management at Dong Energy’s wind power business, a chat with his children sparked his conversion. A geologist by training, Sykes started work for companies including Shell and Hess in 1987. “I’m absolutely backgrounded in that sector, and I’ve done 21 years in oil and gas,” he tells Quartz.

He describes his career trajectory as “opportunistic,” but ethics played a role too. Back in 2008 his children, then aged 5, 9, 11, and 13, were “increasingly challenging me on some of the things my industry was up to,” he says.

Sykes explained to them the importance of relying on “socially responsible hydrocarbons until we’ve worked out how to transition away from them,” he recalls. But he also left the industry, first to work for the Carbon Trust, and later for Denmark-based Dong.

“I spent a lot of my focus in oil and gas offshore, and I love working on ‘big stuff,’” he says, describing 8-megawatt offshore turbines with blades 80 meters (262 feet) long. “For me, just being part of this transition, and being a part of making it happen… is very exciting.”

A wider lens

It’s not easy to say exactly how many people work in renewables versus oil and gas, partly because of the disparities in where countries draw the lines. For example, the US counts “green jobs,” but all are not necessarily in energy; and for oil, do you count parts manufacturers and steel pipe makers?

Worldwide, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates there were 7.7 million people working in renewables in 2014, 18% higher than the previous year. Figures from the UK renewables industry suggest it is growing slightly faster than that. In India, according to the International Energy Agency, an ambitious plan for renewables implies that by 2040 green jobs could account for 30% of all energy employment, double the share in 2014. (It’s not so clear everywhere, though. Australia saw a surge in renewables jobs which reversed after changes in policy over the last five years).

Oil, meanwhile, is going through a rough patch. Plunging prices have led to a lot of layoffs. Some of these might be temporary, like in the upstart US shale industry, while others are structural. The North Sea is running out of oil, which was already hurting jobs in the UK, exacerbated by the recent price slump. A young drill-rig worker in North Sea waters, who didn’t want to be named, recently told Quartz he was one of the last people to be hired on his rig when he joined a couple of years ago. Since then the rig has seen a hiring freeze. He doesn’t know when it will end.

Of course, not all—or even most—of the people leaving oil and gas will go to work in renewables. But skills like understanding the vagaries of offshore environments and experience with complex engineering projects make the people losing jobs on oil rigs highly employable for building wind farms at sea. And services companies are also now finding that they have more work orders in renewables than traditional oil exploration.

“All the vessels we use are vessels we used to work on [in the oil industry], that three years ago we couldn’t afford, and now are desperately chasing our work,” said Tim Cornelius, CEO of Atlantis, which is building one of the world’s first arrays of tidal turbines not far from Orkney. His background is also in hydrocarbons.

Perks of the job

Do these renewable converts get any criticism from former colleagues for switching sides? “Not at all,” says Buck. In fact, the contrary is true, as former coworkers have asked about her path into green power (which came about via a Masters degree in renewable energy, taken with Schlumberger’s support).

The one thing she hasn’t managed to do yet is bring about actual collaboration between her former industry and her new one. But now that the prices of oil has fallen so far, squeezing profit margins, there might be more interest in trying something different.

Meanwhile, she’s happy to be raising her family with a sea view, on a group of islands that produces more than enough power to run itself via renewables. Traditional oil and gas locations—deserts, platforms—“are not the prettiest,” she says.

“I’ve had several of my friends in the oil and gas industry come up and they’re like, ‘how did you manage this? How can you live in such a beautiful part of the world?’