Case Study

How bp is tackling the transition to renewables

31 August 2021

At the age of 30, Michael Denison left behind a career in legal costs arbitration to study for an MA and a PhD in Political Science. Since then, he was worked as a university lecturer, for a leading international risk consultancy and in the UK government.

Close up of wind turbines

Working as a senior international adviser for bp since 2013, he talks about his focus on just transition, responds to accusations of greenwashing and reveals why he was attracted to Prospect.

What’s your role at bp?

I work on a several projects for bp, mainly around our aspiration to become a greener company; to use less oil and gas and produce more renewable energy.

The UK North Sea oil and gas sector is still very important to bp but we’re increasingly doing more projects that bring us into the renewable space.

Michael Denison

Michael Denison

They include offshore wind projects, solar energy and working on an initiative called Net Zero Teesside, which is transforming an old industrial area of Teesside, and greening it up. Our project there involves creating blue hydrogen, which is a much cleaner fuel, and then capturing the carbon.

In summary, I’m excited to be working for bp right now. We are helping to address some of the urgent climate challenges that we see in the news every day. But there are other challenges, for people who work in the energy sector in the UK, particularly how they transition their skills as the energy mix changes.

How important is the concept of Just Transition to bp?

Personally, I think it’s hugely important. The company is repurposing its activities and its people, and I include myself in that. I worked on oil and gas projects for nearly eight years, and now I’m working mainly on an offshore North Sea wind project helping to find grid solutions. My colleagues are doing the same.

For people who are in technical and scientific roles, I think it’s happening without the company making a deal of saying, ‘We’re doing a Just Transition.’ It’s happening, almost subconsciously as people are being assigned to new projects.

However, there are people in other roles, say you’re in exploration or a geologist, where there might not be the same level of work for you and bp did have to let some people go in 2020.

The sector is restructuring, a lot of variables are in play and there will be some jobs that are lost. However, the UK is leading on developing the wind sector and there are new opportunities in decarbonising cities and transport. What the sector must do is bring as many people as it can from one line of work to the other.

Is the industry doing enough? I think it’s trying, but there’s much more to do.

How would you respond to people who say that BP is part of the problem on the climate emergency rather than part of the solution?

It’s a tricky one but I would say that the core answer is it comes down to energy demand.

For example, we need to get EV charging infrastructure laid out so that people can move away from having petrol cars into EV cars. But if people cannot charge their cars at home or at supermarkets, it’s not going to happen. The demand issue is the critical issue. Supply will move where demand goes.

We need to get to low carbon options as quickly as possible, but we still need to keep the lights on at home, in hospitals and in workplaces in the meantime.

At the moment, oil and gas is indispensable and will be used in some way for the next 50 years, but the picture will shift quite a lot over the next two decades.

Are the traditional fossil fuel companies unfairly accused of greenwashing?

bp and other companies have been accused of greenwashing, for example in our arts sponsorship. We have to accept that some people dislike large companies and disagree with the production of oil and gas.

But it is essential to realise how serious bp is about its new strategy. The company has been reorganised, the focus of much commercial activity has been switched and how we view and approach the market is different. Anyone who works for or with bp will attest to this.

It’s a radical change and I don’t really think the company could do more than it’s doing at the moment. The challenge for bp is to bring the workforce with it in terms of explaining the strategy, re-skilling workers and providing new opportunities.

The company has not traditionally been highly unionised onshore in the UK, but I believe unions like Prospect can play an important part in re-skilling the company and supply chain.

Was there anything that sparked your personal interest in sustainability issues?

I’ve worked principally in oil and gas, in either a consulting capacity or for the company, over the last 20 years. In that time, I found the international politics around oil and gas fascinating. Recently I realised that there is a completely different set of energy politics around renewables. I felt that not many people were looking at that and it began to interest me on an intellectual level.

But practically I like the idea of us moving to electric transport and moving into a more sustainable energy system. I’m not alone in thinking that the hard question is: how can it be delivered and be made affordable for people? This is particularly so in developing countries where access to energy is an issue in itself.

I realise that this is going to be challenging for some people who have worked in the oil and gas sector. But I feel confident that there’s so much skill there, so much experience and we are going to need to use all that for the new technologies.

You’re a relatively new Prospect member. Why did you decide to join?

I was brought up in a trade union family and I’ve always been in a trade union, in whatever job I’ve done. I’m from a different union to Prospect. I have a good friend who has been a Prospect member for many years and they said it was a good union with people working on the issues I do.

I wanted to be able to link up with people who were in the energy sector and undergoing the same process of transitioning from one type of work to another.

The reason why I like Prospect is because the focus is on members; protecting members, developing skills and networks, and delivering a better deal for its members.

We now have new Energy branch which will make a big difference in helping with the Just Transition work and I’m excited to be part of that.


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