Energy sector needs its own Elon Musk

The sector needs someone who, like Musk, is driven by a passion for what he does and can capture the public's imagination

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Bill WhitelawYou can’t go far on an energy journey these days without tripping over Elon Musk.

And with good reason: he’s something of a next-generation energy messiah. Personable and charismatic. Visionary and creative. Energetic and entrepreneurial.

His very persona exudes the essence of sustainability, coupled with an upbeat hope for a future in which energy and earth exist in harmonious synchronicity.

One wonders what things might be like if the petroleum sector had a Musk, a larger-than-life personality capable of defining a vision and stepping boldly toward it – and tugging people along.

Musk’s Tesla embodies the essence of a sustainable energy future in which creature comforts are not forsaken. It’s cool and (notionally) good for the environment in one speedy dream machine. In the world according to Musk, you can have your cake (car) and eat (drive) it, too.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas sector doesn’t have a Musk. The sector has big personalities, to be sure, but they’re for the most part well known only within petro circles. They don’t create the external buzz that comes with building cool cars, redefining battery technology and pondering life on Mars.

The sector is poorer for that, because it has no charisma link to the broader public, which is happy enough to use the products of the sector’s efforts without dwelling too much on how things (gasoline, heating fuels, refined petroleum products, et al) lubricate life as we know it.

Perhaps the sector needs to groom such a person, someone who can articulate the role a sustainable petroleum economy will play in continuing to positively shape people and society over the next 50 years.

Technology will drive that evolution for the next half century as it has for the past half.

Musk makes technology cool and accessible even to people who will never own a Tesla or solar-powered shingles.

The oil and gas sector has cool tech, too. The list of innovations that underpin our quality of life is as lengthy as it is fascinating.

Most people, even policy-makers, get that petroleum-powered economies will be around for the foreseeable future, even as other energy options become increasingly pervasive and cost-efficient. We will live in an increasingly integrated energy context, to be sure, but most of the energy economy’s cylinders will still house pistons pushed by internal combustion.

Indeed, the petroleum sector’s next 50 years will be characterized by even more technological advances. Some will be pretty amazing as the industry balances cost and environmental imperatives. Innovation will continue to shape the future as the industry works to manage everything from emissions to water quality.

So is there anyone out there who can make a drilling rig be perceived to be as cool as a Tesla – and help the public understand that the fossil fuel industry is hardly fossilizing?

Today’s rigs are just one example of technology marvels that can be found all along the hydrocarbon production chain.

Musk is a believer. He’s driven by a passion for what he does and that captures the public’s imagination, not by a passion for the spotlight.

In the past, when the petroleum sector spoke about its achievements, it was often accused of self-aggrandizement. That’s made people and companies understandably cautious.

Maybe the answer is a full-scale assault on the public’s appetite for things with a tech edge. Perhaps the things we consider tools of the trade will actually fire the public’s imagination.

So who wants to be the petroleum sector’s Elon Musk?

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

Bill is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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