If you were to ask the average man or woman in the street about UK oil & gas, what do you suppose they’d say?
It’s likely their answer would be some or all of the following: that it’s all running out, that we import our gas from Russia, that it’s being replaced by renewable energy, that it’s dirty, polluting and unsafe.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to go very far to find these views. There are people living in our key industry centres, in Aberdeen and in the north-east of England, whose perceptions of the oil & gas industry are similarly off beam.
Perhaps in the past it has been all right for us to go modestly about our business, letting sleeping dogs lie, quietly contributing vast sums to the Treasury and providing jobs for hundreds of thousands while ensuring a stable and secure energy supply for our nation.
The game, however, has changed rather radically in recent years. Our industry has attracted an increasingly vocal range of active opponents and determined detractors, whose motivations may well be driven by political, ethical, environmental or safety concerns – or simply by the cost of road fuels and electricity which just seem to keep on going ever upwards. And therein lie a number of dangers for our industry.
Here I name but three:
· We recruit our employees from the general public and so if the public is in general against us, then we will have a terrible struggle ahead to attract the broad range of people of all ages, skill sets and disciplines we will require if the UK oil & gas industry is to continue to prosper and maintain a position of global excellence.
· If our politicians increasingly hear only the concerns of our detractors, which I fear is increasingly the case, then wrong and very damaging policy decisions affecting our industry can easily be taken in Holyrood and Westminster.
· If that is true for our parliaments here, imagine how more likely it is for the European Union, where there are only a small handful of member states with any meaningful oil & gas production, and which has huge decision-making authority over our industry. Just think about the recent calls for a cessation of offshore drilling which came from the European Parliament recently if you want a worrying example of that particular danger.
The more I have thought about this problem the clearer it appears to me that, as an industry, we have almost totally failed to engage properly with the media, politicians, other opinion formers and, most importantly, the public in general.
Within our industry, we know that oil & gas will remain the major component in this country’s energy supply for decades yet to come. We know that the UK offshore industry is a centre of global excellence in offshore and subsurface engineering and the undisputed global leader in subsea engineering. We know we are the single largest industrial investor in the UK economy and the largest corporate taxpayer.
And yes, within our industry, we know how vital safety is, and that our UK safety case and goal-setting safety regime is highly regarded around the world.
However, the stark truth is that we have failed to communicate very much, if any, of this to our fellow citizens who in general have little, if any, knowledge of these facts. As a result, we have left ourselves wide open to attack from those who oppose what we do.
The task of changing the perceptions and the outdated, old-fashioned stereotypes of this industry is an immense one, and not one which will be overcome in a few months or even a few years. It will take a decade or more to turn back the tide of negativity that continues to swell around our industry.
I do believe that, over time, it is possible to change perceptions and dispel the lack of knowledge about our industry. But we should not kid ourselves. It will not be easy. In fact, it will require a Herculean effort, one in which we must seek to enlist the support of the whole of the industry and everyone who works within it.
Why? Because we, in turn, need to engage with all of the great British public. This cannot be done through corporate advertising in the press, TV or radio alone. It will only occur if we, the people who work in and know this industry, personally engage in a proper and respectful personal dialogue and debate with our fellow citizens. We need to conduct a facts-based conversation with our friends and neighbours about our industry and its importance to the welfare of this country and all its people. Of course, some of us will need to focus to some degree on the opinion formers in the media and politicians, but we must not limit ourselves to them. We need to engage in face-to-face discussion with real people right across the country – the people who ultimately have the real say, the ones with the real political power.
We need to try to explain to them why this industry is a positive force for good in people’s lives, and how everyone in the UK would be so very much worse off without it. This needs to be a totally frank and honest engagement, one which does not seek to hide where we have failed in the past or the many areas where there remains scope for improvement. And while this engagement has to make use of all appropriate communication media, most importantly and fundamentally it has to take place through individual conversations and in that regard we will need to include the exciting potential of social media.
Oil & Gas UK will play its part in this vital and exciting task lying before us and help wherever and whenever it can. However, if like me you work in this industry and want to see it survive and prosper, please don’t delude yourself into thinking that the job of making the case for and restoring the good reputation of this industry can simply be outsourced to the trade association. This is far too big a job. This is a job that in the final analysis depends on you.
Aberdeen breakfast briefing, Oil & gas – The Dangers of Being Britain’s Best-Kept Secret, will take place from 7am to 9am on Thursday at the Aberdeen Beach Ballroom. To book a place, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01224 577250.
Malcolm Webb is chief executive of Oil & Gas UK