Companies are expending valuable public and political goodwill arguing for their rightful place in the energy mix — rather than leading the public and the energy sector into the future.
I know that many green visions of the energy future are fanciful. I also know that many of the early oil and gas innovators were visionary, radical, and downright kooky. Can you imagine the reaction the fella got who said: Throw out your whale oil, I’ve got this cheaper and cleaner answer right here that came out of a hole in the ground!
The big difference for the oil and gas industry today: it’s visionary and has billions of dollars, world-class researchers, and the capacity to innovate and execute at incredible scale.
There are no clear leaders of the energy future innovating solutions across the value chain at scale. The public and investment community are eager to invest in such a leader.
That’s why I’m betting on the future of clean energy and visionary energy services to come from this industry.
Both of these things are true:
- The oil and gas industry has the research and development (R&D) resources, experience, and know-how to lead global energy innovation — and the public wants a leader.
- But the public right now sees the industry as an entrenched monopoly of old energy, past its prime, holding on to “the way things were.”
A vast, influential segment of the population believes that the oil and gas industry is a thing of the past and that the future is leaving without us. The oil and gas industry is reinforcing this narrative by battling directly over “the facts.” We see this most succinctly when the industry informs the public over and over of its reliance on fossil fuels for everything from agriculture to plastics. (I’ve done it myself.)
Seventy years ago, oil and gas companies were the heroes of quickly advancing energy innovation which fueled American and Canadian prosperity, providing increasingly efficient, comfortable, and affordable lifestyles. Fossils transformed agriculture, industry, and transportation—allowing the creation of the world as we know it. We basked in a grateful public for many decades. How we long for those days!
But we need to stop fighting for a return to that era. Instead, we need to look back more than 100 years — to embrace the spirit of oil and gas pioneers and their example as we meet growing public expectations for a decarbonized, efficient, affordable future where energy is invisible, clean, and always available.
Finding fault in others’ vision of a decarbonized energy future does not inspire confidence that we have our own farsighted energy ideas.
It matters because:
As public sentiment increasingly prioritizes climate change, the “oil and gas is history” narrative gains traction — even as public uncertainty about how to tackle climate change and who should lead that charge reaches new heights. As a result, a portion of the public and private finance sector is increasingly punishing oil and gas companies as investments. Similarly, the policy environment is creating regulatory obstacles to project approval, construction, and operation. As hostility increases, financing becomes more expensive, policy becomes more obstructionist, and public opposition grows, fundamentally undermining companies’ ability to effectively operate. And it’s all traceable back to perception.
The critical mistake companies are making:
Industry posturing is growing unimaginative and predictable. I empathize. I have used all these arguments: You still need us (84% of the world is powered by fossils); the opposition is wrong (let me count the ways); we are suffering from the effects of political polarization (true!). In a drama where industry is the villain – industry either plays its part well (putting up a fight) or tries to rewrite the narrative as the victim. Neither is a winning strategy.
Seize the day.
The well-loved and documented stories of North America’s first oil and gas wells heralded a new era. This was not, however, an era of linear progression and growing market share. It was an era of fits, starts, trials, and failures.
American oil’s famous replacement of whale oil in the 1850s for lighting was significant, but short-lived. Less than 25 years after its dominance, lighting oil was replaced by commercial electricity generation and light bulbs. The growing successes and dead ends of North American oil and gas production and demand have been completely intertwined with technology innovations, ever-changing market uses, and accompanying newly invented “energy services” that have arisen and fallen over the last 170 years.
The internal combustion engine sputtered along through several “failed experiments and abandoned designs” until its first commercial success in 1860… but the car did not become widely affordable until 1908 thanks to Henry Ford. And when it did, no one was worried about the market for lighting fuel.
This iterative history, full of grand plans and failed innovations, can guide us to contemplate the future of energy with aspiration and flexibility as our guide. Let’s share a vision for a clean, decarbonized, quickly evolving energy future. Successful companies will:
- Accept that technology, energy supply, and energy demand will continue to evolve dramatically.
- Understand that the public expects leadership from oil and gas, the dominant energy industry, in reducing the environmental footprint of energy services, particularly carbon.
- Decide to lead the way to that energy future.
- Anticipate the ways the innovation within and outside of the industry are part of the energy future.
- Articulate your company’s role within the energy future.
This is a long, paradigm-shifting exploration to uncharted energy territory. I would like to profile companies leading the way – send me a message and tell me what your company is doing.