May 29, 2023

Emma McConville was thrilled when she landed a job as a geologist at Exxon Mobil in 2017. She was assigned to one of the company’s most exciting and lucrative projects, a huge oil field off Guyana.

But she was fired during a video call in late 2020 after oil prices plummeted during the pandemic. “I probably lost power halfway through,” Ms McConville recalls.

Her shock was short-lived. Just four months later, she landed a job at Fervo, a young Houston company that aims to develop geothermal energy beneath the earth’s surface. Today, she manages the design of two Fervo projects in Nevada and Utah, earning more than she did at ExxonMobil.

“Covid allowed me to pivot,” she said. “Covid is a driving force for renewable energy, not just for me but for many of my colleagues.”

Oil and gas companies laid off about 160,000 workers in 2020 and have kept budgets tight and hired cautiously over the past two years. But after the early shock of the pandemic wore off, many renewable energy businesses expanded rapidly, taking geologists, engineers and other workers away from companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron. Half of Fervo’s 38 employees are from fossil fuel companies, including BP, Hess and Chesapeake Energy.

Executives and workers in energy centers in Houston, Dallas and elsewhere say a steady stream of people are shifting from fossil fuel jobs to renewable energy jobs. Such moves are difficult to track in employment statistics, but the overall figures suggest such career moves are becoming more common. Employment in oil, gas and coal has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. But the number of jobs in renewable energy, including solar, wind, geothermal and battery industries, is growing.

Last year, there were about 700,000 fewer workers in the oil and gas industry than there were six years ago, a drop of more than 20%. Much of that decline has to do with a slowdown in the shale drilling boom and increased automation. In contrast, employment in the wind energy industry grew nearly 20 percent from 2016 to 2021, to more than 113,000 people.

In more than a dozen interviews, energy workers and executives said they had turned to renewables because they felt the oil and gas industry’s better days were behind it. Others said they were no longer willing to tolerate extreme volatility in oil and gas prices, and the resulting cycle of rapid hiring and mass layoffs. Many said concerns about climate change, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, factored into their decisions.

Jean Paul Beebe negotiated land leases for oil and gas companies before he was laid off early in the pandemic. He is currently working for Enel North America, a developer of renewable energy projects owned by an Italian energy company. He said he made a good living when shale drilling was booming, but the downturn took its toll.

“It’s a burden to ride the waves mentally,” Mr Bibby said. “What I know now about renewable energy, it’s definitely more stable.”

Many workers, including electricians, offshore construction engineers, information technology specialists and environmental surveyors, say the skills they honed in oil and gas jobs have translated well to the jobs they do now.

“The fundamentals are the same,” says Miguel Febres, a petroleum engineer who has worked in the oil 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 defends corporate interests in a city that is home to many large oil and gas companies, has been working to attract more renewable energy companies to the region. A recent McKinsey study for the group found that the Houston area lost 125,000 oil exploration, production and pipeline jobs from 2014 to 2020, a 26% decline. The study warns that many more traditional energy jobs could be lost over the next three decades.

“The workforce of the future is going to look very different than it does today,” said Jane Stricker, senior vice president for energy transition at the Greater Houston group and a former BP executive. Dozens of startups, some with as many as 50 employees, have opened or relocated to Houston since 2020, she noted.

“Covid has created a lot of opportunity,” she said. “No one invests in oil and gas because the returns are terrible. A lot of money is going to find new opportunities.”

Renewable energy company executives say being in Houston has helped them attract employees.

“Whenever we post a position like geologist, drilling engineer, or geophysicist,” says Tim Latimer, chief executive of geothermal company Fervo, “as soon as you name an oil company, We get a handful of applicants from each company.”

Oil and gas executives say their industry still has many years of job opportunities and continues to fulfill an important mission.

Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major oil and gas producer in Texas, said, “Recognizing that we provide energy security for the state and our foreign partners and stable and affordable energy for our citizens “Continues to make the industry a desirable profession.

Trent Latshaw, chief executive of Latshaw Drilling, which operates rigs in Oklahoma and Texas, said the demise of oil and gas jobs has been greatly exaggerated. “A lot of people have been brainwashed into thinking that oil and gas are disappearing,” he said. “The oil industry is far ahead of renewables and will be for a long time to come.”

But even Mr Latshaw acknowledges that the importance of renewable energy is growing.

Sunnova Energy, a leading solar and battery supplier based in Houston, increased its workforce to 1,400 employees from 350 in March 2020. Last year, it doubled its Houston office space. Its information technology staff alone has grown from about 70 to about 200 in the past two years.

“There are a lot of people from the oil and gas industry who say, ‘Hey, I’m ready for a change,’” says Anthony Cervantes, who interviews candidates as director of information technology.

Mr Cervantes said he was a consultant to oil companies before joining Sunnova two years ago after being sacked during the Covid economic slowdown. He says he is more satisfied with his job now because he worries about climate change: “It’s nice to have a job with purpose.”

Some lawmakers and union officials in Washington said the transition to green energy could hurt workers because jobs in the oil, gas and coal industries tend to pay better and are more likely to be unionized than jobs at solar and wind companies . But renewable energy executives argue that those comparisons are incomplete and don’t take into account the more stable jobs their industries offer.

John Berger, Sunnova’s chief executive, said wages at his company are growing fast. “Over the past 12 to 18 months, the rates we’ve paid service technicians have gone up,” he said. “So the pay gap, if it ever existed, has either narrowed or is narrowing.”

Some workers who have left oil and gas companies say they have been frustrated by how slow their previous employers have been to embrace 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 landed a job at Shell, studying how the oil company builds large-scale renewable energy projects and sells electricity.

He said he initially wanted oil companies to change the way they do business. “Most oil companies think that one day oil and gas demand will drop and we have to do something after that,” he said.

But he gradually came to the conclusion that the industry spends only a fraction of its revenue on clean energy research. A few months after he joined Shell, Covid hit, oil prices plummeted and research funding started to dry up. While working from home, he became more isolated, and one colleague after another quit — often to work for a renewable energy company.

Most frustrating is the commercial lens through which the Shell executive sees his project. “Every project needs to have a very high rate of return,” he said. “But electricity is not as valuable as oil or gas.”

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company “remains committed to investing in and delivering energy that is increasingly low-carbon.” He added: “We will continue to review the means we have to achieve this aim to increase shareholder value, while contributing to a balanced energy transition.”

For months, Mr Johnson’s frustrations grew. He said he saw the omens when his supervisor left Shell to start a business.

Soon after, that manager offered Mr. Johnson a job as a senior services architect for GreenStruxure, a firm that advises companies on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. He now develops models to show how companies can save money by installing solar panels and batteries.

Mr Johnson remains grateful for his time at Shell, saying he gained a “great experience” and liked the people he met there. “I might be willing to go back to Shell,” he said, “but I have to be confident that I can make an impact.”

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