When Emma McConville was offered a position as a geologist at Exxon Mobil in 2017, she was overjoyed. She was tasked with working on the enormous oil field off Guyana, one of the company's most lucrative and intriguing ventures.
She was fired over a video chat at the end of 2020, though, after the pandemic caused a slump in oil prices. I think I passed out halfway through, Ms. McConville recounted.
Her amazement vanished quickly. Four months later, she was hired by Fervo, a new Houston business that seeks to harness geothermal energy beneath the surface of the Earth. She now makes more money than she did at Exxon managing the design of two Fervo projects in Nevada and Utah.
She said, "Covid allowed me to change." Not just for me but for many of my coworkers, "Covid provided an impetus towards renewables."
Over 160,000 employees were let go by oil and gas corporations in 2020, and over the previous two years, they kept to tight budgets and cautious hiring. But as the initial shock of the pandemic subsided, numerous renewable enterprises quickly grew, hiring geologists, engineers, and other staff members from companies like Exxon and Chevron. 38 people work for Fervo, and 38 of them are employed by fossil fuel firms including BP, Hess, and Chesapeake Energy.
Energy hub executives and employees in Houston, Dallas, and other cities claim that a consistent flow of individuals is switching from occupations involving fossil fuels to those involving renewable energy. Although it might be challenging to follow such changes in employment statistics, the general trends seem to point to an increase in these types of job changes. Employment in the oil, gas, and coal industries has not returned to pre-epidemic levels. Yet, employment opportunities in the solar, wind, geothermal, and battery industries are growing.
About 700,000 fewer people worked in the oil and gas sector last year than they did six years earlier, a fall of over 20%. The halting of the shale drilling boom and increased automation were major factors in that decline. In contrast, the number of people employed in the wind energy sector increased by more than 113,000 from 2016 to 2021.
More than a dozen interviews with executives and workers in the energy sector revealed that many of them had made the switch to renewable energy because they believed that the oil and gas sector's greatest days were behind it. Others expressed their unwillingness to put up with the sharp swings in oil and gas prices, along with the cycle of heavy hiring followed by abrupt layoffs, any longer. Many people said that their choice was influenced by worries about climate change, which is mostly brought on by the use of fossil fuels.
Before being fired early in the pandemic, Jean Paul Beebe secured land leases for oil and gas firms. He is currently employed at Enel North America, a renewable project developer owned by an Italian energy firm. When shale drilling was thriving, he claimed to have made a solid life, but downturns were hard for him.
Mr. Beebe remarked, "Riding that wave is a strain, mentally. "What I know about renewable energy now, it's unquestionably more stable."
Numerous employees, including electricians, offshore construction engineers, information technology professionals, and environmental surveyors, claim that the abilities they developed while working in the oil and gas industry are well suited for the work they are doing now.
According to Miguel Febres, a petroleum engineer who worked for 19 years in the oil business before working as an Enel project planner for wind and solar projects, "the fundamentals are the same." "We lay wires, build roads, install foundations, and install wind turbines."
The Greater Houston Partnership has been working to bring more renewable industries to the area. The partnership represents the interests of businesses in a city that is home to numerous sizable oil and gas companies. According to a recent analysis conducted for the organization by McKinsey & Company, the Houston area lost 125,000 employment related to oil exploration, production, and pipelines between 2014 and 2020, a drop of 26%. The analysis foresaw the potential loss of numerous traditional energy jobs during the ensuing three decades.
According to Jane Stricker, senior vice president for energy transition at the Greater Houston organization and a former executive at BP, "the workforce of the future will look very different than it looks now." She mentioned that numerous start-ups, some with as many as 50 people, had moved or started in Houston since 2020.
She claimed that Covid "created a ton of opportunity." Nobody was investing in the oil and gas industry because the returns were so low. There was a lot of money looking for a new opportunity.
Renewable industry executives claim that Houston has made it easier for them to recruit employees.
Tim Latimer, the CEO of Fervo, a geothermal startup, claimed that whenever he posted a job for a geologist, drilling engineer, or geophysicist, "you name the oil company and we receive a handful of people from every single one."
According to oil and gas executives, their industry still has a lot more good years of employment ahead of it, and it continues to provide a crucial purpose.
According to Scott Sheffield, CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources, a significant producer of oil and gas in Texas, "the realization that we have provided energy security for the country and our foreign partners along with a stable and cheap energy source to our citizens" has kept the sector attractive to employers.
The extinction of oil and gas jobs, according to Trent Latshaw, chief executive of Latshaw Drilling, which runs rigs in Oklahoma and Texas, has been greatly exaggerated. He claimed that "many individuals have been indoctrinated into believing that oil and gas are going away." Renewable energy sources are vastly outweighed by the oil sector and always will be.
Nonetheless, even Mr. Latshaw admitted that the significance of renewables was rising.
A renowned Houston-based solar and battery company called Sunnova Energy has increased its workforce from 350 in March 2020 to 1,400 today. It expanded its Houston offices by two times last year. Over the past two years, the company's information technology personnel alone has increased from from 70 to almost 200.
Anthony Cervantes, who conducts job interviews in his capacity as director of information technology, said that many people leaving the oil and gas industry are stating, "Hey, I'm ready for a change."
Before joining Sunnova two years ago, Mr. Cervantes worked as a consultant for oil businesses, according to him. He was fired amid the Covid slowdown. He claimed that his concern about climate change has made him happier at work now: "It's wonderful to have a purpose in your profession."
Because jobs in the oil, gas, and coal industries often pay more and are more likely to be unionized than jobs at solar and wind companies, some lawmakers in Washington and union officials have claimed that the switch to green energy could harm workers. Executives in the renewable energy sector, however, contend that these comparisons are flawed because they fail to account for the more steady employment that their sector offers.
Sunnova's CEO, John Berger, said that the company's pay had increased quickly. "During the last 12 to 18 months, the compensation rates we pay our service personnel have significantly increased," he stated. Hence, if there ever was a salary disparity, it has either closed or is closing.
Some former oil and gas employees expressed their frustration with their former businesses' delayed adoption of clean energy.
Since high school, Sam Johnson, 30, has been interested in renewable energy. After earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas in Austin, he was hired by Shell to conduct research on how the oil firm may develop sizable renewable energy projects and sell electricity.
He claimed that at first, he had hoped that oil firms would alter their business practices. The majority of oil firms anticipate a day when demand for oil and gas would decline, and he added that we must be prepared to act then.
Yet he eventually came to the conclusion that the sector was funding clean energy research with a minuscule proportion of its earnings. A few months after he joined Shell, Covid struck, oil prices fell, and funding for research started to dwindle. When more of his coworkers left his home-based job to work at renewable energy companies, he grew increasingly alone.
The business perspective through which Shell officials viewed his efforts was the most annoying. He stated that "every project ought to have an extremely high rate of return." Yet unlike oil or gas, electricity is not a valued commodity.
The business "remains committed to investing and supplying energy that is increasingly lower carbon," according to Shell spokesman Curtis Smith. The levers we use to accomplish that, he continued, "will continue to be closely examined with the aim of increasing shareholder value while supporting a balanced energy transition."
Mr. Johnson became more and more irate over the months. When his boss departed Shell for a start-up, he claimed to have seen the writing on the wall.
Soon after, the manager made Mr. Johnson an offer to work at GreenStruxure, which offers assistance to companies looking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, as a senior service architect. He now creates models to demonstrate how businesses can cut costs by adding solar panels and batteries.
Mr. Johnson still has fond memories of his time spent working for Shell, where he says he gained "a ton of experience" and made friends. He admitted that he would likely be open to returning to Shell, but added that he would need to be confident in his ability to contribute.