an opinion editorial written exclusively for ANZMEX 

15 July 2020
By Chris Sladen

Energy matters – What should I say to my kids?

My kids all know that I worked many years for a big oil company, and they know that burning oil makes a lot of pollution. My saving grace, as they often remind me, is that our gas station toilets were always cleaner than other oil companies. The message from that is very simple; young people know that clean is better.

My kids recently wanted to know about other places I had worked before they were born. I explained when I applied for my first job at an oil company over 40 years ago, I did not really care about what they produced and knew little about how their business worked. I needed that job and they offered a lot of training. At the time, I had zero money and nowhere to live so I was willing to try it.

A few years after I started work, my country went to war. At the time, I did not understand why. Even so, a lot of people asked me if there was oil to be found where the war was taking place.

I then described my time working in a country eager to find more oil & gas for its large, fast expanding population. Here we drilled over 20 exploration wells and never found anything commercial. Nothing at all. It cost many many hundreds of millions of dollars. I learned the true meaning of a risk business; I learned what it feels like to fail and to analyse failure. It took a lot of work and research to figure out why we had been so good at getting things wrong.

After that I explained that I worked in a country that has one of the most pristine environments imaginable. Nomadic herders who drift across steppe grasslands that have never been touched by fertiliser chemicals. There was little oil to be found there and the country still has a pristine environment with clean rivers and crystal-clear lakes.

Afterwards, I described working in what was then regarded as the poorest country on earth. We discovered a lot of natural gas and once developed it enabled the people to have electric power, no power cuts during the day, light in the evenings, for many the first time ever, refrigerators to keep food fresh and air conditioning for hospitals. I learned about access to affordable energy.

I then suggested to my kids that they should consider getting a job in the energy industry. Everyone needs energy. It is an industry that needs some of the brightest young people on the planet because there are a lot of very big energy problems.

I explained that one of the big problems is that we need to change the type of energy we use. We have to make it cleaner, more reliable, more efficient, and we need more of it. And make sure everyone has access to low cost energy. We are going to need really clever young people to sort this out because in the past most people used types of energy that make a lot of mess. Advertising encouraged people to use lots of energy. The size of your car engine was all important; what came out of the exhaust pipe did not matter. Companies never considered the consequences. Consumers never considered the consequences.

At this point, my kids wanted clarification. So Dad, you want us to clean up your mess? I explained that for many decades people never realised there was a problem. Only recently was there proof of what the problems are. If we got working on this quickly there would be much less mess to clear up. Indeed, they would not leave behind an even bigger environmental mess for their kids to clean up.

My kids still reckon that I worked in a ‘dirty sunset industry’. They look at me and see an old man struggling to walk who gave his whole working life, always on-call 24 hours per day, for something that most people don’t really seem to want anymore.

So I said, well, the future of the planet depends on the brightest minds going into energy! Everyone agrees that oil and gas will still be needed for decades – even in the greenest energy future that we can imagine. The challenge is to change your world from ‘Big Oil’ and ‘Big Coal’ to ‘Big Clean Energy’.

One of my kids wanted to know if there were companies that refuse to change. When I explained that yes there were, and whole countries too, he was angry, I could see it, feel it. I told him about some of the companies still flaring gas from production operations and at refineries. Simply burning hydrocarbons to get rid of them. And how they often do this in the middle of the night so that nobody notices. He felt it was best to work at a big one and get it to change, changing it from the inside, or be in finance and steer investment into cleaner projects.

Another then asked if I knew any companies that might already be willing to change, ones that would use new technologies. He likes the latest technology – smart phones, electric cars, designing sustainable cities on his computer etc. I explained that some companies just focus on new energy technologies and the challenges they have are to upscale new technology to industrial levels. We talked about offshore wind, batteries, hydrogen and wave energy. He felt this was the best area to work.

My other child wanted to know what subjects to study at University, what to do research on. She likes animals and the countryside. We talked about research on how to get to net zero in farming and the dilemma of biofuels which use up land that could otherwise be growing food for hungry people. Also other opportunities include planting trees and spreading crushed rock dust on agricultural fields to fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into rock minerals and plants in the soil. These are areas of great potential to trap greenhouse gases that appear within reach if there is more research.

I reckon this was the best days work that I have ever done…

About the author:

Chris Sladen runs an advisory service offering insights to inform, shape a decision, policy & regulation, and guide the next steps for energy ventures, acquisitions & divestments, energy transition and climate strategies. Chris has a unique global experience having worked in over 40 countries. This is underpinned by extensive knowledge of petroleum systems and where best to find oil and gas, notably in the Gulf of Mexico & nearby areas, Europe and NE & SE Asia, as well as the development of midstream, downstream & renewables investments in many emerging economies. Chris has extensive experience acquired on the Boards of companies, subsidiaries, business chambers & organisations. Chris has a career of over 40 years in the energy sector, living in Mexico (2001-2018), Russia, Vietnam, Mongolia, China & UK. His contributions to the energy and education sectors have been recognised by the UK Government with both an MBE and CBE, and also the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican Government – the first foreigner in the energy sector to achieve this award. Chris has published extensively over five decades. Chris’ articles for Energy Matters reflect his experience and enthusiasm and are not paid for in any way.

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