As oil companies stay lean, workers turn to renewables
As oil companies stay lean, workers turn to renewables
Emma McConville was thrilled when she landed a job as a geologist with Exxon Mobil in 2017. She was assigned to one of the company’s most exciting and lucrative projects, a giant oilfield off the coast of Guyana.
But after oil prices crashed during the pandemic, she was fired in a late 2020 video call. “I probably passed out halfway through,” Ms McConville recalled.
His shock was short-lived. Just four months later, she landed a job with Fervo, a Houston startup that aims to harness geothermal energy beneath the Earth’s surface. Today, she manages the design of two Fervo projects in Nevada and Utah, and earns more than she earned at Exxon.
“Covid has allowed me to pivot,” she said. “Covid has been an impetus for renewable energy, not just for me but for many of my colleagues.”
Oil and gas companies laid off around 160,000 workers in 2020, and they’ve maintained tight budgets and hired cautiously over the past two years. But many renewable companies have grown rapidly after the early shock of the pandemic subsided, attracting geologists, engineers and other workers like Exxon and Chevron. Half of Fervo’s 38 employees come from fossil fuel companies, including BP, Hess and Chesapeake Energy.
Executives and workers at energy hubs in Houston, Dallas and other places say steady streams of people are moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy jobs. It’s hard to track such moves in employment statistics, but the overall numbers suggest that such career moves are becoming more common. Employment in oil, gas and coal has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. But the number of jobs in renewable energy, including solar, wind, geothermal and battery companies, is growing.
The oil and gas industry had about 700,000 fewer workers last year than six years earlier, a drop of more than 20%. Much of this decline was related to the slowing of the shale drilling boom and greater automation. In comparison, employment in wind energy grew by nearly 20% from 2016 to 2021, to over 113,000 workers.
In more than a dozen interviews, energy workers and executives said they switched to renewables because they felt the oil and gas industry’s best days were behind them. Others said they were no longer willing to tolerate the extreme ups and downs in oil and gas prices, and the cycle of rapid hiring followed by crushing layoffs. Many said concerns about climate change, which is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, were a factor in their decision.
Jean Paul Beebe negotiated land leases for oil and gas companies before being made redundant at the start of the pandemic. He now works for Enel North America, a developer of renewable projects owned by an Italian energy company. He made a good living when shale drilling was booming, he said, but the downturns weighed on him.
“Surfing this wave is a load, mentally,” Mr Beebe said. “What I know now about renewables is absolutely more stable.”
Many workers, including electricians, offshore construction engineers, IT specialists and environmental experts, say the skills they honed in their oil and gas jobs have translated well to work. they are currently doing.
“The basics are the same,” said Miguel Febres, a petroleum engineer who worked in the petroleum industry for 19 years and is now a wind and solar project planner at Enel. “We install foundations, we install turbines, we build roads, we lay cables.”
The Greater Houston Partnership, which champions business interests in a city home to many large oil and gas companies, has tried to attract more renewable companies to the area. A recent study for the group by McKinsey & Company found that 125,000 oil exploration, production and pipeline jobs were lost in the Houston area from 2014 to 2020, a reduction of 26%. The study warned that many more traditional jobs in the energy sector could be lost over the next three decades.
“The workforce of the future will be very different from what it is today,” said Jane Stricker, senior vice president for energy transition at the Greater Houston organization and a former BP executive. She noted that dozens of start-ups have opened or moved to Houston since 2020, some with as many as 50 employees.
“Covid has created a ton of opportunity,” she said. “No one was investing in oil and gas because the returns were terrible. A lot of money was looking for a new opportunity.
Renewable energy company executives say being in Houston has helped them attract workers.
“Every time we advertise a position for geologist, drilling engineer or geophysicist,” said Tim Latimer, managing director of Fervo, the geothermal company, “you name the oil company and we have a handful of applicants from each .”
Oil and gas executives say there are still many good years of employment in their industry and it continues to fulfill a vital mission.
Scott Sheffield, managing director of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major oil and gas producer in Texas, said “the realization that we have provided energy security for the country and our foreign partners as well as a source of stable and cheap energy for our citizens” has continued to make the industry professionally desirable.
Trent Latshaw, managing director of Latshaw Drilling, which operates rigs in Oklahoma and Texas, said the disappearance of oil and gas jobs was greatly exaggerated. “A lot of people have been brainwashed that oil and gas is on the way out,” he said. “The oil industry is so massively outpacing renewables and will be for a very long time.”
But even Mr. Latshaw acknowledged that renewables were growing in importance.
Sunnova Energy, a leading Houston-based solar and battery provider, has increased its workforce to 1,400 from 350 in March 2020. Last year, it doubled its offices in Houston. Its information technology staff alone has grown from about 70 to about 200 over the past two years.
“There’s a lot of people coming from oil and gas, and they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m ready for a change,’” said Anthony Cervantes, who interviews candidates for his CTO job. information.
Mr. Cervantes was a consultant to oil companies before joining Sunnova two years ago, after being laid off during the Covid downturn, he said. He’s happier with his job now, he said, because he’s worried about climate change: “It’s good to have a purpose in your job.”
Some Washington lawmakers and union officials have said the transition to green energy could hurt workers because oil, gas and coal jobs tend to pay better and are more likely to be unionized than workers. jobs in solar and wind companies. But renewable leaders argue that these comparisons are incomplete and fail to account for the more stable employment their industry provides.
John Berger, chief executive of Sunnova, said wages at his company have been rising rapidly. “The pay rates we pay our service technicians have increased significantly over the past 12 to 18 months,” he said. “So the pay gap, if there ever was one, has either closed or is closing.”
Some workers who left oil and gas companies said they were frustrated with how slowly their former employers adopted clean energy.
Sam Johnson, 30, has been interested in renewable energy since high school. After earning a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, he got a job at Shell to study how the oil company could build large-scale renewable energy projects and sell electricity.
He said he had initially hoped oil companies would change the way they do business. “Most oil companies see that there will be a day when the demand for oil and gas is lower and we have to be able to do something after that,” he said.
But he gradually concluded that the industry was allocating only a tiny fraction of its revenue to clean energy research. Within months of joining Shell, Covid hit, oil prices plummeted and research funding began to dry up. Working from home, he has become more isolated as colleague after colleague quit – often to work at renewable energy companies.
Most frustrating was the commercial lens through which Shell executives viewed its projects. “Every project must have a very high rate of return,” he said. “But electricity is not as valuable a commodity as oil or gas.”
A Shell spokesman, Curtis Smith, said the company “remains committed to investing and delivering increasingly low-carbon energy.” He added: “The levers we pull to achieve this will continue to be reviewed with the aim of increasing shareholder value while contributing to a balanced energy transition.”
As the months passed, Mr Johnson’s frustration grew. He saw the writing on the wall when his supervisor left Shell for a start-up, he said.
Shortly after, that manager offered Mr. Johnson a position as a senior service architect for GreenStruxure, which advises companies on eliminating their greenhouse gas emissions. He is now developing models to show how businesses can save money by installing solar panels and batteries.
Mr Johnson still enjoys his time at Shell, saying he gained a ‘ton of experience’ and loved the people he met there. “I would probably be willing to go back to Shell,” he said, “but I would have to be confident that I can make an impact.”