“You do what?!?” Climate change and the social dynamics of a job in oil & gas

by Ritva Westendorf-Lahouse, IOGP Communications Director

Ritva Westendorf-Lahouse

It doesn’t matter what company employs you.   Or what your role might be.   In my 18 years of experience working the oil and gas industry, the time comes – sooner or later – when you have to answer the seemingly innocuous question: “And what do you do?”

It could be at a party.   Or a family reunion.   Or at your child’s school.   After the initial pleasantries covering the weather, mutual acquaintances or the latest political scandal, the question will arise.  Invariably, when you answer it, there suddenly appears a gleam in the eyes of your counterpart and the first thing you hear is a little “Oh…”.

Next comes one of three reactions:

  • Denial. This comes in a tone of mild incredulity: “But you seemed to be such a normal/nice/reasonable person…”
  • Pity. This usually takes one of two forms:  Either “Oh, that must be so difficult for you…”   Or, “I’m so sorry.  You can’t feel very secure in your job, what with oil and gas being supplanted by wind and solar…”
  • Rebuttal. The eyes narrow and what follows is a torrent – polite or otherwise – the gist of which covers how misguided you are and how your actions are killing the planet and how can you live with yourself…

When I moved from my native Germany last month to the UK, I had wondered if things would be any different with regard to my role in the oil and gas industry.  They aren’t.   But that’s good.

I welcome both discussion and debate as long as they are honest.  There is much to learn from every encounter, whether informed or emotion-based.  Or both.

Because no matter what the views of any new acquaintance, they are based on genuine perceptions.  So if the industry I work is seen as archaic, narrow-minded or arrogant, then such negative views are, at least in part, our own fault.  It means that we have collectively failed at getting our own messages across.  For whatever reason, we haven’t managed to demonstrate our commitment to responsible and sustainable operations – including support for the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Nor have we sufficiently stressed that oil and gas are integral to achieving the Paris goals.  Natural gas, for example, gives off half the CO2 emissions of coal in power generation.  And such facilities are essential in backing up to intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar.

It’s one thing to find and produce the oil and gas that the International Energy Agency says will be needed to meet about half of growing energy demand for decades to come.  We need to be equally successful in generating the facts about our industry and its products.  My predecessor at IOGP, Global Engagement Director Olaf Martins, stressed that oil and gas in themselves are not climate change problems; it’s their emissions that are responsible.   And those emissions can and are coming down.  In the US, for example, the switch from coal to gas has brought down to levels last seen in 1991.

What’s more, un-burnable oil is a vital component in contemporary life.   Oil-based feedstocks are to be found in pharmaceuticals and multi-use plastics for things such as mobile phones and computers.   And in the form of lubricants, they reduce energy use and enable industry and transport.   Special oil-based lubricants even keep wind turbines turning.  (For more about the uses of oil, visit:  https://www.iogp.org/oil-in-everyday-life/

Our industry has a great story to tell.   Along with my team at IOGP, I can’t wait to take the facts to as wide a public as possible.

About Ritva Westendorf-Lahouse

Ritva was seconded from ExxonMobil to IOGP in November 2019 as Communications Director. She started her career as an upstream lawyer, first with BEB ( a German ExxonMobil/Shell Joint Venture) then ExxonMobil Central Europe.  She then moved to Public and Government Affairs in 2011 where she held various positions in media and communications. Ritva is especially passionate about social and digital media. She has held several leadership roles with increasing levels of responsibility. From 2017 to 2019, Ritva served as chair of the Legal Committee of the German Oil and Gas Producers Association (BVEG), with a focus on industry advocacy. Ritva graduated from the University of Goettingen, Germany, with a doctorate in law (Dr. iur.). She is a proud mum and wife, plays the piano, and enjoys hiking in the wilderness of Finnish Lapland.

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