Let’s Be Frank: An Embattled Industry? And the Personnel Who Pay the Toll

By Inspector Frank. June 29, 2023

It seems to me that, as an industry, the petrochemical equipment integrity world should be at a “come to Jesus” moment, but no one is acting on it. How so? Well, I think we are all grappling with the same conflicting information:

  1. The environmental impact of carbon is wrecking the planet.
  2. There is no real actual viable alternative to fossil fuels that we can immediately transition to.

The first point above has lots of traction and money behind it right now. I cannot turn on a news channel without hearing that we need to transition to green energy. I don’t necessarily disagree, I just have an old problem of having to listen to the talking heads and their experts who don’t have a basic grasp of reality, let alone high school physics. Either of which should allow most people to understand that we aren’t replacing our current energy usage and energy expectations in the Western world by switching to solar, wind, and electric cars.

Fear always sells, so instead of rational discussions and plans, it’s a lot of panic rhetoric with no real solutions beyond that we have to do it right now, or the planet is doomed. Reminds me of one of the old short comics that was in Mad magazine about a guy carrying a sign that said, “The End is Near.” He then walked around the corner, slipped on a banana peel, and impaled himself on his sign. If you continually predict and broadcast nothing but doom and gloom, then that is likely all you will ever see and do.

The second point is where the science geek in me really starts having issues. If you are all bored at some point in time, start doing some rough estimation math around the world's current electrical and transportation energy demands and how much square footage of solar panels you would need to feed that. It starts becoming obvious that wind and solar are not going to work. Especially considering neither of them is capable of being the full-time power grid backbone we need as a starting point.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Do we need to cut down on pollution and try to be better stewards of the planet? Yes, we do.

But if we keep doing it in the asinine way that we’ve been doing it, then I don’t have real high expectations that we are going to get anywhere.

If you aim for nothing, you will hit it every time.

So, do we keep trying? Yes, we do. Can we do it in an intelligent way? I don’t know.

There are a lot of conflicting interests and a lot of money flying around currently with green energy. Most of the governments of the Western world are making all kinds of money available for a lot of pipe dream nonsense that is being sold as solving the problem. This all ends up clouding the issue.

Add in the fact that it appears most of our elected officials, and apparently their paid advisors, do not have an ounce of basic science ability or even common sense, and it starts looking pretty bleak.

I, for once, am unusually pretty optimistic about this. I see some actually viable solutions being done here and there amongst the massive waste of money. For example, I see people finally starting to consider nuclear energy after years of the coal and oil and gas industries sinking money into demonizing and up-reporting the risks of nuclear power. I see people looking at mass transit/rail again, even though the trucking/bussing industry spent a lot of effort into killing the North American rail system.

But what worries me is the effect that this has on the mental health of everyone, especially those working in the petrochemical energy industry. And our youth, we seem hell-bent on bombarding them with messages of doom and gloom. I don’t see a lot of optimistic youth out there. The combination of these effects is really not helping the energy sector or those of us who are trying to keep “guarding the gates.”

I want to step back and make a brief comparison for you. This happens to be the second time I have found myself in an embattled career, and neither time was good for my mental health.

For those of you who have been reading my articles for the last four years, you have probably guessed that I served in the military (or at least have an unhealthy fascination with things military). I did serve through the ‘90s. The materials engineering/inspection world became my second career after I left the army in 1998 (I continued to serve in the reserves until about 10 years ago).

So now that I have thoroughly dated myself, what do I mean? Well, being in the military in a NATO country in the ‘90s was an interesting experience. And one that compares nicely to what we are going through as an industry, including the same impacts on the personnel involved.

Consider this: In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. I remember watching that on television. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed after the coup failed that attempted to overthrow Gorbachev. I was in the army, training to fight the Soviet Union in Europe in the event they finally invaded. Literally overnight, the NATO alliance and most Western militaries lost their “raison d’etre.” This was pre-9/11 and the Global War on Terror. Literally, ten years before. The ‘90s became the “come to Jesus” moment for NATO countries, and like the crisis around energy right now, it was poorly handled, especially to the detriment of the personnel working in the field.

As a juxtaposition, there were again two conflicting pieces of information:

  1. The large militaries required to potentially combat Communist aggression wrecking the planet (geopolitically).
  2. There is no real actual viable alternative to maintaining your security and autonomy as a country than by having a full-time standing military.

After Desert Storm, the American military had no other major combat operations in the 1990s. NATO and UN forces were involved in small conflicts and “peace-keeping” operations, predominantly in the Balkans and Africa. But overall, the Western world started downsizing the sizes of their armies and started cutting budgets like mad. Sound kind of familiar?

This also caused an existential crisis in the militaries of the Western world. What were we here for? What was the point? If the world was transitioning, how does the army fit in anymore? I can tell you that as a serving soldier through this time frame, it was very demoralizing. Not knowing what the future might bring and what role you might play in it can be very hard on the individuals involved. It is the recipe for a mental health disaster.

It also made recruiting difficult. Why join the army if it is a dying industry?

And just like now, there were talking heads that had everything all sorted out. Well, they were wrong, as usual. None of them predicted the effect 9/11 would have on the world's geopolitical stage. Regardless though, that period was one where for the industry of “military service,” it seemed that all was for naught and that we were involved in a “trade” that wasn’t needed or wanted anymore.

Again, sound familiar? Many of us are currently working in a field that is demonized daily, but not necessarily in an intelligent way. We are constantly told that the way we do business is killing the planet and that by not going green now, we are dooming our children to a dead planet.

Is it true? Is it rhetoric? Is it just the current investment tactic? Is it that no one has a clear vision of what the future might hold for energy production? It’s probably a bit of all of those things and more.

Regardless, what I learned as a serving full-time soldier of the ‘90s was that it can be demoralizing and hard on your mental health to be told you are the problem, not the solution, even while people grapple with what the solution actually is, or should be, or could be.

I see similar effects now within some of the companies I work for. Personnel are demoralized, leadership gives conflicting and sometimes very negative information because they don’t really know either, and everyone tries to keep the status quo going while wondering if that is what they should be doing. I see fewer and fewer young people wanting to get into the energy sector because of this uncertainty.

This will also impact our collective mental health.

I hope this gives you all something to think about, which is the reason I keep writing these articles. I would like to end this article simply with a final thought. Please pay attention to the mental health of those around you. Between the chaos and uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic caused, tied in with the “end is near” mentality around climate change, I see a lot of people not doing well in our industry.

Keep your chin up. Collectively, humanity always pulls through, and I see no reason not to think we are still capable of doing that in a sane way – eventually. In the meantime, we should all practice a little more kindness to one another.

And keep “guarding the gates.” Whatever the future may hold, the safety of the people and processes that power our industries and communities will always be vitally important. Hold your heads high. I, along with many others, appreciate what you do.

Comments and Discussion

Posted by Jeffrey Stoudt on June 29, 2023
Regarding "Climate Change:" Fortunately, I took... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by William Oliphant on August 28, 2023
Great article. Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Syed Zafer Sayeedi on September 12, 2023
Inspector Frank, you are reasonably frank, very... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

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