The Real Culprits Steering Students Into Doing Big Oil’s Dirty Work

The Real Culprits Steering Students Into Doing Big Oil’s Dirty Work
Hire people — including those who wanted to go into oil and gas — for green jobs. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

Plummeting demand for fuel amid covid-19 lockdowns has left the oil and gas industry in shambles. That’s bad news for the recent college grads profiled in a piece the New York Times published this weekend, all of whom hoped to find “elite positions” in the fossil fuel industry. Cue the tiny violins, right?

The piece sparked instant mockery from climate advocates and writers, including our pals at Jezebel. Many noted that anyone looking to get a high-up job in an industry that actively destroys the planet for profit deserves the misfortune of not being able to find one. But the piece actually exposes a deep flaw in the education system and in the case of many Earth science departments, their cosy relationship with the fossil fuel and mining industries.  

Look, I get it. On a personal level, I am not exactly down with anyone who wants to spend their life furthering the reign of the fossil fuel economy, which is basically a death cult. And the piece’s framing, which makes it seem as though these kids are the true victims of the downturn of the industry’s demise, is downright insulting. While one 22-year-old responded to the sector’s downturn by taking a job at JPMorgan Chase — a bank implicated in the subprime mortgage crisis and other evils — many others are struggling amid energy industry layoffs.

But I still think these kids, whatever I think of their personal opinions, should be able to have good jobs. Not jobs in the fossil fuel sector, which should be abolished. But there are lots of other white-collar employment opportunities in sustainable fields that they could have been encouraged to go into. Reading the piece, I wondered why more ire wasn’t directed at their universities for failing to prioritise those pathways.

“One shouldn’t put all the blame on the individual students, because their worldview and career options are clearly shaped by the educational systems around them,” Geoffrey Supran, a research associate at Harvard University who has written about the fossil fuel industry’s capture of universities, wrote in an email. “Those systems, in turn, are typically exposed to powerful conflicts of interest arising from financial entanglements with the fossil fuel industry.”

A line in the piece about how one student’s professors had “talked up the future for oil and gas companies,” he said, exemplifies this. The fossil fuel industry has plunged millions of dollars into funding academic research, including work done by climate deniers, and on-campus research centres. But it’s not just individual professors who are the problem.

Jessica Tierney, a climate scientist who teaches at the University of Arizona, said school departments are an issue, since many are still designed for jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

“I teach in the geosciences department…where the curriculum has stayed the same over the decades, with the same set of courses, even though nowadays, you can get jobs in so many different sectors,” she said. “We require everyone to take structural geology, but we don’t require everyone to take a climate change class.”

That essentially funnels students into oil and gas industry. Changing curricula to encourage — and equip — students to look for jobs in other sectors, like climate science and natural disaster risk management, wouldn’t just be better for the planet, it could help ensure students have a stable economic future. The jobs market for fossil fuels is shrinking, and not just because of covid-19.

“The oil and gas market has been suffering for a number of years,” Tierney said. “The article mentioned there are fewer and fewer opportunities in the industry because of the pandemic, but it didn’t mention that has basically been the case for the last five or six years now.”

Despite this, changing schools’ curricula hasn’t been easy, and a major reason is that many universities continue to take funding from fossil fuel companies. That’s especially true in fuel-producing states like Texas, where the students in the Times profile all studied. One attended the University of Texas, where multiple programs — including the engineering department where it’s implied she studied — have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chevron. Another is in grad school at Rice University, which has also taken funding from oil giants, including in its Earth science school. The school even boasts that recent grads have found work at BP, Marathon Oil, and Chevron. A third subject of the article is a senior in finance at the University of Houston, which has also taken millions of dollars from energy companies, and partnered with the likes of BP for training and scholarship opportunities. With all that engagement with these companies, is it any wonder that these students didn’t question the gospel that Big Oil is the place to look for work?

“The universities are completely complicit,” Megan Milliken Biven, an energy policy researcher who focuses on a just transition for fossil fuel workers and grew up in Louisiana, another oil producing state, said. “They have the option to diversify, they could say, ‘we’re going to lead on wind and encourage schools to go into wind energy,’ but they don’t.”

If schools shed this industry pressure, they might be able to see that many students could easily be trained to address the legacy of the fossil fuel industry rather than perpetuating its existence. Those in geosciences, for instance, could be rerouted to careers dealing abandoned oil and gas infrastructure or work on risk management for climate disasters. Those in the natural sciences could study habitat restoration to remediate land impacted by extraction, oil spills, and other industry maladies. And finance students could go on to do research on funding the green economy.

The transition away from fossil fuels will require the creation of thousands more blue and white collar jobs alike. Milliken Biven, for instance, wrote a federal draft bill that would create a federal agency focused on abandoned natural gas well management. The calls for the government to hire thousands of people to find and continually monitor orphaned wells, which can spew dangerous pollution if left unchecked even once they are plugged.

“There are thousands upon thousands of jobs that need to be filled, and these kids already have the skills to fill them. The government could create those positions and make them good jobs,” she said. She also suggested that the government could push universities to offer free retraining programs for those offered “a bogus degree” in the failing fossil fuel industry.

While I may not personally vibe with folks who are vying for jobs in oil and gas, their desire to work in the fossil fuel industry didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, it’s a product of a broader structure of oil and gas dominance. It’s that dominance, not a few 20-somethings, who are the real problem.

To fix that will take a lot of work — and lots of workers, including white collar ones. Rather than hating on these kids for wanting to work in dirty fuel, let’s find ways to bring them into the energy systems of tomorrow. Frankly, we could use them.