James McCallum: Energy industry must break 'them and us' barrier

Debate on the oil and gas windfall tax has fuelled the portrayal of energy producers and suppliers as the bad guys and consumers as the good guys. News of a hike in energy prices is also marring the public's perception of producers, with many believing we dictate market prices not only at the pump but also for households.

Through its shock oil tax raid, the UK government appears to want to punish the bad guys for generating wealth and economic prosperity, creating jobs and investing in our future supply of energy, while protecting the good guys who use energy every day for their cars and homes, and to maintain the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed.

This dominant theme has plagued the industry since the dawning of environmental enlightenment 22 years ago, sparked by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Recent media accounts take the polarisation to a new level along the lines of how the Arabs and Opec, who hold a majority of the world's energy reserves, are wrong and the West, the world's largest consumers of hydrocarbons, are conversely right.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Surprisingly, international energy companies and their partners - the resource-holding countries - have essentially remained silent for two decades, not countering the criticism that lays all the blame for global warming at the door of energy suppliers and next to none of it on each and every one of us who demand and consume energy every minute of every hour of every day.

It's time the industry voiced a few home truths about how it has predominantly sustained the UK economy for almost 40 years, how it has contributed billions in taxes - which pay for our public services - and created hundreds of thousands of jobs, not just in the North-east of Scotland but across the UK.

It needs to dispel myths, such as the prices at the petrol pumps are dictated by oil and gas companies, and highlight its investment in communities, people and technology - and promote its efforts in sustaining and securing energy supplies and finding new ways of producing cleaner energy.

The story needs a new definition that acknowledges we are all stakeholders in environmental protection and sustainable economic growth. The narrative needs to shift from an emphasis on supply, where the least environmental impact takes place, to a focus on demand and consumption that creates the majority of the negative impact from hydrocarbons.

It is in all our interests to work together to secure solutions to the big challenges. The reality is that those scientists who are most likely to make the greatest contribution towards combating CO2 emissions probably work for energy firms or are financed by them. The industry can begin by trying to change the dynamic of the conversation, demonstrating what the industry continues to achieve and contribute to the advancement of society.It requires getting out from inside the safe confines of the energy bubble and initiating consistent and proactive engagement with all stakeholders, and not just when a disaster occurs.

We must get rid of that "them and us" wedge between the industry and society, and find a way of not being seen to promote self-interest. We need to regroup and refocus on building relationships that will engender a better understanding of the energy business. This needs radical changes though, and these changes may be uncomfortable. We need to partner with independent stakeholders and NGOs, or why not invite recognised environmental activists to be non-executive directors on our boards? We could establish industry standards on transparency and solicit ratings from Transparency International in the same way as a corporation would request a credit rating.

The irony is, for an industry that touches almost every human life on the planet, we have allowed our contribution to be dismissed and let ourselves be portrayed as the bad guys. It's not a war and we're not the enemy - but it's time for us to come out fighting and tell our story.

• James McCallum is chief executive of energy services company Senergy.

Related topics: