The oil industry is streets ahead of the rest of society in safety thinking, says environmentalist Øystein Dahle. “So it’s incomprehensible that it doesn’t take the risk of helping to destroy the planet more seriously.”
Change of approach needed
Dahle may have become best known over the past two decades as a campaigner for nature and environmental protection. Before that, however, he spent 32 years with oil company Esso, now ExxonMobil.
That gave him first-hand knowledge of pollution from a major accident, when tanker Exxon Valdez went aground off Alaska in 1989 and spilt huge amounts of oil.
“It was a terrible tragedy,” he says. “Every detail of the investigation into the accident was on the front page of every American newspaper, and you obviously couldn’t talk it away.”
He draws parallels with later disasters, such as the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The companies responsible for that came close to going out of business.
“An accident is clearly the worst that could happen for your relationship with the world at large,” Dahle says. “The reputational consequences are as serious as the financial ones.”
Preventing accidents is much more important for a company in the oil industry than in other sectors, he says, because their consequences are so much worse.
"An accident is clearly the worst that could happen. The reputational consequences are as serious as the financial ones".
He recalls the two years he spent as operations manager for Esso’s oil refinery on the Caribbean island of Aruba, where two million barrels were loaded or discharged every day. That is 400 000 more than Norway’s total offshore output in 2016.
“When you put your head on the pillow at night with a big tanker expected the following day and bad weather forecast – you didn’t sleep well,” Dahle says.
Fortunately, things went well in his time. He experienced no major accidents, either at Aruba or the Esso refinery at Slagentangen near Oslo where he was in charge for several years.
“That was thanks to the company’s safety culture,” he says. “A reputation as an organisation which takes safety seriously is very important. And it’s worth a great deal.
“But the most important value in safety work lies in reducing the risk of something going wrong. The oil industry is streets ahead of the rest of Norwegian society on safety thinking and performance.
“That should actually go without saving, when you’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to hunt for oil. This is by no means a matter of course when you know the risk involved.”
Risk is precisely something a modern society should discuss in its full breadth, Dahle believes, and is keen to get onto an issue which concerns him far more than the oil industry’s standing.
“How is it possible to live in this world, which is in the process of being destroyed, and not take seriously the risk of doing nothing?” he asks.
Dahle is astonished that the environmental debate has become so climate-focused. He says the temperature rise is the most visible and easily measurable symptom, but only one of a wide range of issues.
“We’ve taken a path which is fundamentally wrong, and the consequences of what we’re doing have now become very visible. Every day we don’t discuss this, valuable time is lost.”
In his view, the problem is that economic growth represents the main political goal and that the western world is using up all the resources.
“Carbon emissions occur primarily when we burn oil and gas,” he points out. “But petroleum is an incredibly important building block in most modern products.
“If all the oil-based materials were suddenly to disappear, we’d be in a pretty pickle. Rather than burning oil and gas, we should use them for petrochemicals. They’d also last much longer.”
Dahle feels sorry for the oil industry. “It’s full of very clever people who don’t appear to understand the seriousness of the problem.
“The world can’t cope with more burning of oil, gas or coal, and the petroleum industry should therefore apply its expertise to making the energy sector renewable.
“We must transform our whole way of thinking. There are more than enough challenges for young people who want to make a commitment to the energy business.”
But he emphasises that it is not up to the industry to set the goals for society’s development. This must be the job of elected politicians.
“We must become significantly more frugal in the future,” he concludes. “Our planet is like a spaceship, and we must manage with the resources it’s got on board.”