Sunday, May 18, 2008

FT Report - Working in the Oil Industry

Over a week ago I picked up a special report from the Financial Times on Working in the Oil Industry.  Packed full of features that are best accessed using this FT search link, I found most of the contents to ring true.  However, the average age of the FT writers appears to be a lot less than the average age of those of us working in the industry!  We have good memories of the hard times as well as the occasional booms and most of us have been through one, two or perhaps three downturns with devastating career consequences.

It is no surprise, therefore, that many of us are reaping the benefits of actually being in demand!

I am somewhat amused by comments like "most oil company personnel retire at 55" when nearly every one I work with is over 60!  Of course, many of us are consultants who had a previous career as an employee.

The last significant hiring episode was in the early 1980s when oil prices jumped and then collapsed.  Many young geologists and engineers were laid off and went into new careers.  The largest oil companies were the worst offenders, claiming significant cost benefits to the bottom line.  Likewise, oil company mergers contributed to the bottom line at the expense of huge layoffs of experienced and talented people.

A natural resource company has two assets - its material reserves and the capability to replace them as they are exploited.  Without people it can do little unless following the zero-sum game of buying out other companies and their reserves.   All too many companies have used the M&A route to "grow" but the loss of that capability to replace reserves is now coming back to haunt.  With oil prices above $125/barrel and perhaps heading for $200/barrel by year end, there is no easy solution to many of the world's problems that need cheap energy and transportation solutions.

The mid-1980s saw a difficult time for both the US and the rest of the world but Ronald Reagan had the vision to deficit his way out of trouble - a policy that worked - with cheap oil being the economic driver.  Much as I admire Reagan, I have to fault his short term vision on energy policy, a consequence of which we continue to suffer as no-one since has been brave enough to tackle the subject.  The pigeons have now come home to roost on expensive barrels of our most precious commodity.  Playing around with bio-fuel subsidies is not the answer!

So, working in the oil industry is not so bad at the moment.  But will it last?  Maybe, for a while.  $200 barrel oil would cause a recession which would lower demand and the spike would soon be history.  Political pressure is already being foisted on Saudi Arabia to open up the valves and this could stall the rise in price before it gets to $200.

"Make hay while the sun shines" seems an appropriate thought for the day.  And the sun is indeed shining!