After more than a decade working in oil and gas, Alex Hillman walked away from the fossil fuel industry to take up a role at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. Here, we find out how he made the career switch to join the sustainability movement.
Alex Hillman loves a challenge. He says his passion for working on “technically interesting and complicated projects” led him to take a graduate role at BP’s Kwinana oil refinery, near Fremantle. This role kickstarted an on-again/off-again relationship with working in the fossil fuel industry – a status Alex now has permanently set to “off”.
After briefly stepping away from the industry (there was a stint in local government and time spent pursuing a business idea of his own) the finance and engineering graduate returned to the world of fossil fuels in a project management role at petroleum exploration and production company Woodside. Optimistic that he could influence change from the inside, he transitioned to a climate change role at the global energy company.
In what turned out to be woeful timing, he began his new role at Woodside the same day that the carbon price was repealed by the Australian Government in 2014.
“It was kind of like ground zero,” Alex remembers. This meant that initially there was plenty of opportunity to make improvements. But as time went on, Alex noted that trying to make a carbon-emitting system incrementally cleaner wasn’t the right avenue. Those small initial wins were harder to replicate when it came to influencing change that really moved the needle. Systemic change was what was needed, but Woodside wasn’t up for that.
“We need to stop developing gas. Full stop. I didn't think Woodside was willing to do that.”
“Woodside is making incremental steps in the right direction, but fundamentally it’s still an LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) company that wants to develop and sell fossil fuels,” explains Alex. “These companies invest billions of dollars in multi-decade projects that emit millions of tons of emissions directly and export 10 times as much.”
Woodside’s aggressive opposition to a key Environment Protection Authority (EPA) policy that required all new projects to be carbon net zero really brought home that Woodside would bitterly resist anything that challenged its business model.
“We need to stop developing gas. Full stop. I didn't think Woodside was willing to do that,” he says.
Navigating career crossroads
Like many others, Alex concluded that we can’t abrogate moral responsibility for decisions we’re making or participating in within the workplace. It’s for this reason that a growing number of people working in the fossil fuel industry are finding themselves at a career crossroads.
It might feel like you’re but a drop in an ocean of talent but refusing to work for fossil fuel industries can have a real impact – no matter your profession. After all, without a workforce, fossil fuel companies would cease to operate.
“There's a whole heap of people whose livelihoods are dependent on oil and gas who wish oil and gas didn't exist… lots of them.”
“If the creatives, lawyers and so on start refusing to work on oil and gas projects, fossil fuel projects will stop. It will make a difference. I wouldn't put too much weight into office green campaigns, like making the recycling better – that’s just fiddling around the edges. But removing the fossil fuel industry’s access to talent will support the systemic change we need,” says Alex.
Many people working in (or with) the fossil fuel industry feel alone in questioning the morality of their employer’s operations. While you may feel like an outlier, chances are your co-workers – and even your boss – may be grappling with the same ethical conundrum.
“There's a whole heap of people whose livelihoods are dependent on oil and gas who wish oil and gas didn't exist… lots of them,” says Alex.
If you want to make your views known and do what you can to change the direction of your employer, it’s best to speak up. But where do you start?
Alex shares four clear steps you can follow when facing an ethical dilemma of this nature at work.
Step one: First, let your boss know.
Step two: If your boss doesn't do anything about it, then let their boss know.
Step three: If nothing happens after letting their boss know, then leave the company.
Step four: If leaving doesn't help the issue, then go public.
“Depending on how far people are willing to push it, it’s a healthy and constructive chain of escalation,” says Alex.
Obviously, there are financial considerations to ponder before leaving your role, and not everyone will feel comfortable upping stumps and leaving their job without having another role to go to.
But if you do end up leaving, Alex is a poster child for what can be achieved when you part ways with the fossil fuel industry. As Lead Analyst for the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Alex is living proof that your skills and qualifications are valuable elsewhere.
“I speak to lots of people who have left oil and gas, and very few of them regret it… 99% are really happy with the decision they’ve made and have not looked back,” says Alex.
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