Hitting Reset: Some thoughts on adapting for a post-oil world

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

**
When I reflected on life at the turn of the year, and wondered what the year would be for me, Delve Deeper came to mind. Behind that was the understanding, inspired in part by the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, that everything worth its salt is tested, and only those which had roots sunk deep would survive. I was also on the cusp of quitting my job up north with the prospect of the move of a lifetime looming. Whatever your particular take on COVID-19 is — elaborate hoax, a pretext for instituting a new world order or a symptom of a broken world — what is incontrovertible is that in its wake has come a seismic change to the world and what we know of it. For all the preening, posturing and the facade of strength the world economies have presented, 2020 has shown it all up like an edifice built on shifting sands to use a biblical metaphor. The Emperor’s new clothes, for all we can see, are anything but a covering.

Within the wider context of the shutdown of the world’s systems, the latest iteration of oil’s boom and bust cycle hit close to home, the precipitous dive in the price of oil, particularly the Brent benchmark, from just under $70 to a low of $18 and change the latest trigger in the latest race to trim the fat by companies all along the oil supply and value chain. To be fair, COVID-19, the global shutdowns and the resulting supply glut were only the straw that broke the back of camel increasingly hassled by headwinds such as the continued rise of green energy and their activists, US shale and players (read Russia and Saudi Arabia) only too happy to throw their weight around in an attempt to eke out more market share. A perfect storm perhaps, but all told it is a sequence of events which leaves some (full disclosure like me) who are invested in the industry for their livelihood concerned about the future and what it portends.

With projects no longer economic at current pricing levels, job cuts at majors and their key suppliers are inevitable with BP looking to trim up 10,000 job globally and Saudi Aramco looking to do the same for about 8,000 jobs. Job losses in my old stomping ground in the North Sea were estimated to be in excess of 4,500 in June. Across the pond in America, the first bankruptcies have occurred with surely more to come, all symptoms of the highly leveraged low margin environment the oil patch, at least in the West, has become. Of course, one has to take the good with the bad, and roll with the punches, although it does significantly impact the prospects for attracting future talent into the industry. That, and improving the gender balance and the average age of those in the industry, have been stated objectives for the UK sector of the North Sea with various diversity and inclusion initiatives been fronted as recently as last week. There is also the slight worry that the boom periods between bust (and slash and burn) are getting shorter. Change is afoot in many ways than one.

Change they say is inevitable, it is those who are able to adapt who survive and thrive though, all of which has left me thinking long and hard about the future, and what it portends. The obvious response is to consider a career reinvention, one which untethers me from the tentacles of big oil. Three criteria come to mind in determining what sort of direction such a move might take: the development of domain agnostic skills (to ensure I don’t get stuck in a different version of the big-oil problem), a non-zero entry point( to ensure some or all of my current skills are transferable) and a high ceiling (to ensure there is scope for growth). My oil and gas niche, with some retooling, lends itself to some level of cross-domain application, being relevant across a number of high hazard industries where corrosion and asset integrity is a concern (nuclear, wind, buildings/ infrastructure and even automobiles) as do the quantitative and analytical skills which practising as an engineer have also developed. Risk analysis and management skills are also useful, as are project management and coordination skills.

I am betting on data, as it ticks all three of the criteria above with the added bonus of enabling remote/ flexible working practices and being applicable in my current role. It will take some retooling – for all my flirting with Python, there is a knowledge gap to be plugged there, as well as a time requirement to build the confidence and skills that deliberate practice brings. I may have missed planting this tree 20 years ago, the bigger mistake would be failing to plant it today.

The Diary: The Joy In Small Things

***
Seemingly like in the blink of an eye – like play like play in the pidgin English of my youth –  we are somehow at the end of May!  Summer is finally here, bringing in its wake the realisation that if I had stayed up North, the first of my Nine Fridays of Summer would have just gone past. As it is though, I find myself in an intermission of sorts, loitering in the space between a past life and the future in which an adventure in the sun hovers just out of reach, 70 days late. There are of course worse things than swapping grey granite for verdant green or being cooped up with family, like dying or very nearly dying like so many people, including a few closer to home for me, have over the past few months of this pandemic.

The reality of the lockdown first hit on a personal level sometime in late March, when my flight out was cancelled. My initial reaction is to take it as an extended holiday of sorts, cue extended hours of Football Manager but as time passes, each day blurring into the next, I find life without the tether of routine somewhat disconcerting. Its the first time since the autumn of 2009 that I have been in this place where there is plenty of time on my hands. Six weeks of a creative non-fiction writing course and National Poetry Writing Month do provide some structure and help mitigate the sense of floundering, the result of decisions taken earlier in the year as part of fleshing out what My Year of Delving Deeper would look like. It is thus only in May that the desire to stay creative and productive kicks in, no thanks to the reminders of the supreme productivity of Newton and Shakespeare in similar times from the Twitter productivity gurus.

One of the bigger impacts of all the time everyone suddenly has is a significant regression in the quality of my Whatsapp messages. Being Nigerian, with loads of older, Christian folk in my contacts, I find my inbox something of a ground zero for conspiracy theories of all flavours, from the 5G one peddled by a certain Nigerian MOG through a raft of others suggesting it is all a ploy to foist some religious or moral imperative on the rest of us. Elsewhere in my wider (Pentecostals) network, the miracle of hindsight manifests itself in various names – both well known and lesser-known lights – claiming some sort of prescience or other in having prophesied that a pandemic of such a nature was coming. What those who forward those messages on to me fail to answer is why, if these prophets were that certain, they didn’t shout louder for those of us at the back as Nigerian Twitter likes to put it. Those who cling to conspiracy theories do so as an attempt to find certitude and assert control of what is fundamentally an uncertain state, at least so says Skye Jethani who is a lot more clued into the Christian sub-culture than I am.

In retrospect, the things that stand out from the past 70 days – and some – are the little unplanned things; a picture from 2016 which brings back memories of Lagos and hanging with the old gang, an impromptu WhatsApp video call which segues into a three-way call that drags in A, I and C and dredges up fantastic memories of life, youth and friends that have become closer than brothers as it were.  I find myself measuring time in the small things and new routines, Mondays as bin days, Wednesdays as my Alpha Online days, Thursdays for joining the line that snakes around my local Tesco to stock up on food and water and Sundays for lengthy phone calls to friends and family around the world. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have become portals of exploration, as my runs take me along paths which weave their way around the River Wey navigation paths. The bucolic sights that greet one’s eyes these days belie the fact that as recently as the 1960’s these were functional navigation routes. Private boats and yachts now line the waterway in places, a nod to the relatively well off folk who are our neighbours out here. Even those lie quietly, all furloughed in their own way, more than a few clearly showing signs of age and disuse, a metaphor for pausing to smell the roses and to enjoy the whispers of nature the world would otherwise have drowned out.

This is what my days have boiled down to; Reading, Writing and Running, and finding Joy in small things.

On Leaving

Of the many conversations I have had over the past few years, one sticks out in my mind, not for its length or its importance but for how odd it felt at the time. As I recall it, a travelling salesman and I had just finished a meeting and were heading to the kitchenette at work to drop our coffee mugs off when he asked: “How did you end up here?”.

Given he was white, and I am very much on the darker side of brown, it seemed at least to be somewhere between insensitive and provocative. That he needed my say-so to get his product approved only made the question, and its timing, even more interesting. Years later I would find out that he was Zimbabwean born, and that he took every opportunity to return there especially over the winter months. His question thus reflected more on the city than it did on me and my ‘rights’ to be there. As I sit here now with the benefit of time and some distance from my sojourn in that city, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit that question.

To begin, I have to return to my first days there, the enduring memories of which are of stiff upper lips, heavy overcoats and bitterly cold evenings with winds so ferocious they seemed to find their way through multiplied layers of clothing to torment my skin. What daylight that managed to penetrate the thick fog which sometimes rolled in from the sea overnight fell on dour, grey buildings, built in the main from the granite which was plentiful in the area.

After sharing a flat with a colleague for a month, I moved into the 13th floor of a council tower block, Spartan lodgings shared with a graduate student from the University a mile away, one of two which made the city a destination for students from all over the United Kingdom. Council tower blocks being what they were, it was not uncommon for the lifts to stink of stale cigarettes, for fights to break out in any one of the flats which often required the police to attend and for there to be someone stationed, permanently it seemed, on the benches next to the smoking area asking for spare change. There was a stabbing somewhere in the area, which prompted the police to visit with flyers appealing for information. Even the Receptionist at the Medical Practice I registered at made a point of warning me to be careful, once she’d seen my forms indicating I lived there.

On the plus side, on the days when the fog lifted, I could just about make out the sea in the distance, the number 13 bus stopped a few feet away from the entrance to the block which made getting about easy, and there was a football stadium a short distance away. They used to be good and counted themselves as one of a select few Scottish football clubs to have won a European Cup, thanks to the stellar talents of future Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson in the early 1980s.

I told everyone who cared to listen that this was merely a pit stop on my journey elsewhere. I was here for work and work only. “A year or two at most” was what I told The American when she DTRed our budding romance.

***


Tethered as it were to the sea, water and war have shaped the City’s identity over its more than 8,000 years of existence, enabling it to evolve from two tiny burghs at the mouths of the Dee and the Don Rivers, into its current status as Scotland’s third-largest city. Picts, Scots and the English all held sway over the city at various times and fought for it. Even the German Luftwaffe came visiting during World War Two, with unexploded ordinance being retrieved from its international airport as recently as 2018.

The sea though is not especially forgiving to those who depend on it for sustenance, the vagaries of weather and fish stocks sometimes combining to create extended periods where the catch is poor and thus food less plentiful. That and long, harsh winters which are not conducive to non-essential, frivolous activity perhaps place into context the people’s reputation for being grim and miserable.

Oil – also inextricably linked to the sea – has come to define the city to outsiders more than anything, as does its reputation for terrible weather, stark, grey granite city centre buildings and gruff people. All of this makes for interesting conversations with outsiders, who are wont to consider it a backwater of sorts saved only by oil revenue, the nouveau riche of cities perhaps.

To reduce the city to oil though is to do it a great disservice and minimise the tension between the old and the new which are visible beneath its façade. Wandering through the city centre, it is difficult to miss this in the smell of processed fish and the old derelict processing plants towered over by gleaming office blocks along Palmerston and Poynernook streets. Even the Torry suburb across the Victoria Bridge with a reputation for being rough has ceded significant swathes to the new, most recently a new housing development which replaced Craiginches, the now-closed, notoriously overcrowded prison. In pivoting to oil and gas the city has merely traded one fickle source of sustenance for another, big oil’s boom and bust cycles meaning periods of significant purse-string tightening and job losses are always around the corner.

To sense and understand these tensions is to take the first tentative steps in falling in love with the City for which I had The American to thank. We split up in April of my second year there, which made me accept that my lot was firmly tied to the city for the foreseeable future and opened my eyes to all the ways the City had been reaching out to me. I discovered a church family through the one person I knew in town and met a few others from work.  We still only grabbed lunch somewhere in the only decent mall we had, Union Square, or went out for evening drinks at Malone’s, an Irish bar just down the road from the office but what was clear was that a sense of being in it together was slowly building.

I learned to make small talk: gripe about the weather, the latest failing of the local football team and the ineptitude of the city council. I learnt to enjoy a full Scottish breakfast, dig into haggis with gusto, down a neat Scotch and to ken the difference atween smirr, dreich and drookit. Even the sea and the fog it brought was useful, lengthy runs by the beach became a staple of my exercise regimen.

***

In the days before I leave the city for the last time, it seems only fitting to revisit the people and the places it brought my way in my time there.

V, the precocious six-year-old who I have claimed as a God-daughter, bursts into tears when her father tells her I’m leaving town. I met them when I lived in the flat after the squalid council block in a season of loneliness and enjoyed their hospitality on many a Christmas day. The entire family and I spend a leisurely Saturday at the only amusement park in town. We have dinner together after which I get a handmade card as a memento. There are more tears and then a group hug and picture.

R, with whom I shared an office for six years, and I meet up for lunch the day before I’m due to fly. Between handling vendors and packing up my life into boxes, I arrive two minutes late just after he has fired off a typically acerbic text message wondering where I am on my phone. It’s our first face to face meeting in over a year but slightly more grey hair and slower movement apart, not a lot has changed for him. In many ways, he embodies my relationship with the city; simmering not sizzling, steady but close, more curmudgeonly grandfather than delectable damsel of interest.

Between sips of Turkish beer and bites from the koftes we order, we muse over the past ten years and our lives before that. “It’s the longest I’ve been in one place,” he says and then proceeds to reminisce on his life before coming up to Aberdeen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland all come up, and it shows in his accent which I imagine is a unique amalgam of all these places. Although retired, he’s opted to remain in the city even though somewhere warmer is ostensibly an option. “Aberdeen feels like home now”, is his explanation for not exploring other more exotic locations. Elsewhere for him, there are only vague, tenuous links to extended family to cling on to.

There is a faint nostalgia in his voice that I can relate to, seeing as I have now spent just over a quarter of my life there. This is a city that grows on you. At first brush, there is little of note to see but with time the city clasps you in a tight embrace. You get to know the city, delve into its innards and fall in love. It becomes home. And in leaving I find myself feeling like a prodigal turning his back on home, trading it for the lures of a far country.

I’ll be back.