‘Your generation got us into this mess’: Children of big oil workers discuss climate crisis with their parents – The Guardian | Directory Mayhem

What to do when your family is deeply involved in the oil and gas industry, but everyone agrees that burning fossil fuels is accelerating the climate crisis?

For one family, the role of the fossil fuel industry in fueling the climate emergency is more than just a dinner table discussion. It’s her legacy. Andy and Wendy met in the ’70s while working as engineers for Exxon. They spent decades working in oil and gas while raising their children.

Now retired, Andy and Wendy drove from their home in Washington state to spend the vacations with their son James and daughter Liz, who has two young sons with her husband Dara. The family sat down with the Guardian the day before Thanksgiving to discuss how the three generations view the climate crisis and how the family is dealing with their connection to fossil fuels.

Participants include:

  • Andy, 65, retired engineer,

  • Wendy, 62, retired engineer

  • Liz, 33, Environmental Safety Manager

  • Dara, 35, Liz’s husband and engineer

  • James, 31, IT consultant

Andy and Wendy, you met while working at Mobile?

andy: At that time we were working with synthetic fuels. We tried to address the energy crisis by creating new types of fuel. And Wendy and I met in that group. After the merger with Exxon, they moved us from New Jersey to Texas, there was a big group of us that made that move. That forms certain bonds.

In this group, was global warming even part of the conversation?

wendy: We talked more about air quality and what happens from burning fossil fuels. Houston is so polluted that sometimes children’s sports have been canceled due to air quality. So we talked more about the downside of fossil fuels in terms of air quality than global warming.

In the 1990s, Houston was considered the smog capital of the United States
In the 1990s, Houston was considered the smog capital of the United States Photo: tomwald/Getty Images/iStockphoto

We bought a Prius in 2004, right when Priuses were coming out, and drove it to Exxon every day. There was this whole conversation with all our colleagues about driving a Prius.

andy: Colleagues gave me the eyeball. They just didn’t understand why anyone would ever do something like that.

Liz and James, remember when you first realized what your parents did for a living?

lic: There were a lot of Bring Your Kids to Work days in the ’90s. And so I went to work with my father when he was working at Mobile. But it wasn’t until high school that I really understood what the oil and gas industry was and how it affected people.

James: For me it was a by-product of our move. Because of the Exxon Mobil merger, we moved a few times so people would ask me, oh, are your parents in the military? And I had to say, no, that’s oil and gas.

When you were younger, were you uncomfortable telling people your parents worked with fossil fuels?

lic: I don’t remember feeling ashamed at the time. But when I was in college I felt a very strong urge to pursue a career where I could reverse the effects of climate change. I majored in Environmental Sciences at the University of Washington. And in college, I also learned how long Exxon had known about climate change and covered it up. I had a strong feeling that I didn’t want to buy Exxon gas.

James: I was in high school at the time of the BP disaster, the Deepwater Horizon, and being in Bellingham, such a liberal area, obviously a lot of my peers were very upset about it. I was upset about that. But at the same time my mother worked for BP.

[To Wendy] You wanted to defend your company. And so a lot of words were said: It could have happened to anyone, at that time you took a considerable risk in the Gulf, many companies cut back. But you know, you still have to hold people accountable for the decisions they make.

The explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 21, 2010 killed eleven people.
The explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 21, 2010 killed eleven people. Photo: US Coast Guard/Getty Images

lic: I was deeply troubled by the incident, more than perhaps anyone else in the family. What really saddened me was the fact that people still fill up their cars every day. And they may boycott BP gas, but by continuing to use it, people are contributing to the problem. And there is this horrible hypocrisy after each of these incidents. We can all blame it, and yet there has been no move away from petrol and diesel consumption.

andy: I wouldn’t say there hasn’t been a shift.

lic: Maybe. Slowly and gradually.

andy: Right, right not fast enough for where we want.

Wendy, you were working for BP when the oil spill happened. can you talk a little bit about that

wendy: It really touched me. The environmental part of course, but the safety part in terms of loss of life. I mean, I started crying when I heard the kids talking about it right now.

It was a total moral reckoning. It has become apparent that the fossil fuel industry is wrong on so many levels. I realized I was lost. I started with synthetic fuels and progressed to conventional oil and gas.

But at that point I was so far in the industry. I had two kids in college, so I asked myself, “What can I do in this industry to do something impactful and worthwhile?” So I accepted a safety project in Alaska.

How are the family conversations about fossil fuels going around the dinner table?

dara: What I like about the conversations we have with Andy and Wendy: I ​​think we hold them accountable. Your generation, you guys, got us into this mess and they admit it. I mean, I don’t think you guys disagree.

lic: I remember the first time I chose my own electricity provider and there was a 100% renewable option and I was so excited about it. The first thing I did was call my dad and say dad tell me you’re buying 100% renewable electricity. Then a year later we started a garden and I bought a large compost bin for the backyard. And I’ll call dad, hey dad, you compost, right?

Liz, it’s hard to imagine that you got into this career in environmental protection by accident, that it has nothing to do with your parents’ career choices.

All I knew when I went to college was that I wanted to do the opposite [of my parents]. I wanted to do everything to prevent climate change. And I spent the first 11 years of my career working in the oil and gas industry and in environment, health and safety, and in that context there are many opportunities to talk about sustainability.

But my personal experience is that you can be as loud as you want, but it’s not going to happen without approval from the top. There are many energy companies out there that see environmental and social governance reporting as the latest way to reassure shareholders without driving real change.

Andy and his family now prefer a climate-conscious, plant-based diet.  Last Thanksgiving, they gave up the traditional turkey meal.
Andy and his family now prefer a climate-conscious, plant-based diet. Last Thanksgiving, they gave up the traditional turkey meal. Photo: Courtesy of her family

Andy and Wendy, what happens when Liz says she wanted to do the opposite of what you guys did for a career?

andy: Liz, we can feel her passion and she drives us. And that is a positive influence. We feel the push. It’s our way of saying we don’t get stuck in the blame game. That is very complicated. But whatever, that’s all in the past.

Liz and Dara, it’s your kids three and five. How has the arrival of this latest generation changed things?

wendy: When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, we eat stuffed acorn squash, the vegan version. For us, the climate is a big part of our plant-based diet. So, you know, we’re going to have this conversation with the guys nearby about why there’s no turkey on the table.

lic: The previous generation spoke cryptically and politely about race. And now we speak openly about racism and Black Lives Matter. I feel the same about climate change. We don’t beat about the bush. We have books for our children about climate change. And when we tell them bedtime stories, it’s about climate change. We want them to understand it and name it and talk about it with their friends.

dara: I think Liz and I have a bit of a disagreement. When I tell late-night stories about climate change with the five-year-old, does it raise a bunch of questions, why did this happen? Who was it? I don’t know if it’s necessarily healthy for him to know all this information. And sometimes I don’t even have the answers.

This story is being published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story

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