Jason Wible: My passion for energy policy – and how I’ll apply it to the next two years

I believe much of the debate about climate protection vs. fossil fuels presents a false choice. We do not need to pit one vs. the other. Instead we need to make wise leadership decisions which combine the best technology & ideas – with the fundamental tenets of global opportunity and fairness. NOTE: As many of our customers already know, Jason Wible, an early Geoforce employee instrumental in establishing and later growing our business with major operating and service companies, is taking leave of Geoforce on July 1st to pursue his passion for Public Policy in general – and Energy Policy in particular – at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. Jason will remain a Principal at Geoforce and his email will remain active, but he won’t be involved in day-to-day activities after June 30, 2013. Jason’s knowledge about Energy Policy – and his determination to make a difference in the world – is clear to anyone who has enjoyed the pleasure of good conversation with him. So we asked him to write a post which articulated some of his core beliefs on the subject as a kind of “valedictory” address. It’s an interesting and thought provoking read.

Jason Wible, Dallas, Texas – June 27, 2013: The Challenge Ahead: Assuring the same opportunities I had

The policies and innovations that we adopt in energy for the next 50 years will be the primary factor in determining who in the world enjoys the same opportunities that I have had. In a generation and a half, economic development lifted my family from southern poverty to nearly unlimited opportunity, and was driven by heavy energy inputs. Today we are facing physical limits to those inputs, and at the same time hundreds of millions of families like mine will rightfully demand them. Policies made here in the United States do not extend to the communities where these families live and where these decisions will be made. This is an immense technology and leadership challenge that stretches across industries and borders. I am committed to participating and bringing a combination of excellence, service, and optimism to the effort.

The Oilfield: Where my interest in Energy Policy started

I accepted an interview to join oilfield services company Schlumberger shortly after a campus recruiting visit in the Fall of 1999. The interviewer, Bill, was a fellow University of Alabama alumnus with a few years of field experience around the world in the oilfield. To this day, I remember his clear description of how hard the first few years were for him with constant relocation, physical labor, sleep deprivation, and occasional physical danger. The words used to describe the work were deliberate and cautious. The choice should be carefully considered, and the compressed training and education would not come without sacrifice. Bill was no cheerleader, but the value he placed on the experience was clear.   At the time of this interview, I was just finishing my degree in chemical engineering and a senior project designing a fuel cell process. This project sparked an interest in how the world would access energy in the future, and I had an idea at the time for the role that natural gas would play. Fuel cell technology has not advanced nearly as quickly as I believed it would, and it would have been impossible to predict how hydraulic fracturing would transform the natural gas market. However, the key elements of interest were there and I accepted a follow-on interview to participate in real field work in Lafayette, LA. This field work consisted of dinner with the Operations Manager and then waking up at midnight to perform well logging operations on a remote drilling rig all night. By the end of the next day, without sleep, I was physically exhausted but also hooked.   Thinking about these next 50 years has brought me to the decision to pursue an advanced degree in public policy at the LBJ School. The subject has been my interest for the past 15 years and a reason why I pursued a career in the oilfield. Energy technology has been the journal article or book next to my bedside and is the area where I intend to make a lifelong contribution. Career experiences beginning with those in the Arctic have led me to the decision to start now.

The Artic – the Change in Climate is real and has inspired me to move to the next stage in my career

My first winter in the Arctic was in 2005, and the cold and darkness were shocking. I remember taking a drive out into the Prudhoe Bay field in November when it first reached minus 40 degrees for the year. The metal is tacky to the touch and looking out into the gas flaring in the darkness; I thought to myself that I had arrived in hell. There were some discussions about this being a slightly unusual winter; it was mostly cold and brutal to me at the time.   In the winter of 2007, I was responsible for remote exploration activities in the National Petroleum Reserve and in a prospective field just south of Point Barrow, Alaska. In the Arctic, these prospect fields are only accessed in the winter by ice roads (or arctic rolligons) with trucks dumping load after load of water to create a protective barrier on the tundra for heavy equipment to travel.   But by this winter, it was clear that something was different. The very expensive ice roads were increasingly difficult to maintain, and there was news that the Northwest Passage was open as the ice receded. These experiences in the Arctic highlighted the physical extremes of technology used to produce the world’s energy. They also brought recognition of physical limits to the system. It is in balancing these physical limits including climate change with economic development where I believe energy policy will have the most important role. The application of public policy to new technology as it relates to climate change and energy is an area that I intend to pursue professionally as long as I am able. The length and depth of related challenges are appealing not just because they are interesting but because they requiring continuing effort and education. It is clear after being away from the direct energy business for four years while building Geoforce that I cannot remain away. It is the area where my knowledge and experience can make the most meaningful contribution.

The Future Role of Major and National Operating Companies

The relationship between energy policy and major/national operating companies is a near term interest as these businesses work to develop their long term business plans. These companies are often misunderstood and, in many cases, are seeking more direction from government than is being offered. Typically led by smart, well-rounded people with a deep understanding of world affairs, these companies should be partners. Lord John Browne (BP) gave the first landmark industry speech on climate change at Stanford University in 1997. In 2003, Sir Philip Watts (Shell) was unequivocal in his call for more leadership from the United States in a speech at Rice University. And in 2010 at Oslo, my former CEO, Andrew Gould (Schlumberger) cited the dangers of a 4 to 7 degree celsius temperature increase while calling for policy makers to provide realistic guidance (short of a technological breakthrough).   Despite these three examples of leadership, these companies are not perfect nor do they always act in the long-term interests of the public. The introduction of sulfur dioxide reducing technology and the regulation of the discharge of pollution from point sources into waterways came about as a result of public policy, not good will. However, those who would merely criticize will miss the opportunity to work within a vitally important industry that is seeking guidance from policy makers to solve real problems. I support a pragmatic approach that will achieve results.   Even outside of the dangers from climate change, I believe it will be increasingly important for our world to have the right energy policies built on practical judgments. The availability of affordable energy deeply affects the feelings of security for individuals and nations. For the developing world, the right policies will be fundamental in shaping the rise of prosperity, the elimination of poverty, and the creation equal opportunity. Certainly the decisions will be difficult, and I will bring a broad base of knowledge and experience to help shape them.

A perspective from the Developing World

A recent business trip to Rio de Janeiro that overlapped with the Rio 20 Sustainability Conference highlighted the nature of these difficult decisions. I spent some time with a Brazilian diplomat, Pedro, who was attending the conference. After discovering that I was an American, he shared with me his frustration over the requests being made of his country. Pedro strongly made the point that the U.S. and Germany became industrialized nations and brought their populations out of poverty by extracting natural resources including broad deforestation. To deny the same for his countrymen seemed unfair and to be hypocritical. Without doubt, there is truth in this, and it brings to a point what I believe will be most challenging for a career in energy policy going forward; U.S. actions will have at most a limited impact on the direction of energy use and the course of climate change.   If the energy use and carbon emissions of the United States and OECD have peaked, the path that the world takes in dealing with negative outcomes from climate change will be decided by men and women like Pedro. The technical, leadership, and communication skills to participate in the global discussion will all have to translate across borders. Not only will it be much harder to tell a mother in the developing world not to lift her family out of poverty, it will be completely ineffective. And who would want to do such a thing anyway? This is a technology and leadership challenge, and it is a big one.

How Technology and Ideas can help

Finally, it is the opportunities presented by technology that I am ultimately driven by. Yes, I do believe it is likely that any change in the energy mix will be a fifty year slog. In this scenario, tough, measured, cooperative discussions will lead the way. The trillions of dollars of existing hydrocarbon infrastructure will be managed alongside the consequences that it brings. The experiences that I bring to graduate school have prepared me to participate in that arena. However, as Andrew Gould suggests, my eyes will be open for the technological revolution. We do not see one coming yet but we never do. I learned in the remote oilfield to act decisively and without wavering when I am convinced of the right course, and this has been the most important skill in my career to date. This is why I led the independent operations in the Arctic and why I made the decisions surrounding Geoforce. George Patton said that a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week. I agree. If I believe a new technology will provide for both equitable economic development and remove the risk from climate change, I will lead. The skills developed over the next two years will help.