Once Erik learnt more about climate change a few years ago, he was hooked. Since then the highly experienced oil and gas engineer has been looking to apply his skills in the sustainability sector. This ties in well with his passion for sailing. He has literally set anchor in the Canary Islands to pursue his new venture.
What is your scientific background?
I have a Master in Applied Physics, which in the Netherlands is associated with the ‘Ir’, the ‘academic engineer’ title. My final area was materials technology, and my thesis was on surface-alloys on bulk aluminium substrates such as the coatings now used inside the cylinders of car engines. Originally, I chose physics because I was looking for a challenging subject. However, it was quite heavy on the theoretical side, so I studied some marketing, economics and psychology on the side to keep myself entertained, and because I knew that I wouldn’t want to work in physics. I also worked on software projects around the time the first Windows version came out! All these additional skills have been useful in my career. I don’t regret studying physics, but I could have had more fun…
How did you transition from physics into engineering?
Physics taught me a scientific approach and allowed me to hone my analytical skills. At the time, Shell typically recruited academics. So, the degree also helped bringing me on their radar. If you understand practical things, engineering is an option. I had fixed bicycles and had done other relevant things in the past. So, I was familiar with being hands-on and practical.
In my engineering career, I have applied all those additional skills – the computing, economics and so on. Psychology helped when working with people. I strongly believe that when you have certain skills, you will always end up migrating towards roles that allow you to apply them.
Tell me about your time in Oman.
I worked as a petroleum engineer for Shell, seconded to the national oil company, PDO. I looked after the production of the Rima fields and a number of satellites before upsetting my boss and becoming commissioning production technologist for the new LNG plant. I left Oman in 2000.
Oman was a fantastic place to live: superbly friendly people, an interesting cultural mix with the Arabs and Zanzibari and the most mind-blowing countryside you can imagine - rather dry mostly but impressive and varied, and of course, some great sailing opportunities. I managed to become national Laser champion one year. Oman is probably the most moderate and well-governed country in the Middle East. Though it has a Sultan in charge, he seemed to look after his people, culture and country in a pragmatic and effective way.
Continuous learning. Toastmasters is a learning playground. Even when sometimes my own learning rate in public speaking drops a bit, there are plenty opportunities to improve my skills at coaching, influencing from the side-lines, advising, trying to keep the atmosphere positive or managing meetings. Additionally, it is a great way to meet a group of very friendly people with diverse backgrounds who are into doing something right.
If you keep an open mind about what you want to learn, you can do a lot in the club. Some people join to practise one particular presentation and then disappear. That is a shame. There is so much more you can do in the club, such as officer roles and mentoring.
For me the interaction with other people is what has real value. In these 12 years, I've seen many changes in the club. Another lesson for me to learn was that you can be in keeping with a certain idea in very many ways, and usually when people get the opportunity to add something new, good things happen. The only occasional exception to this can be students who have enthusiasm, confidence and ideas, but don’t always understand the complexity of human interactions. This, in itself, is an interesting learning ground!
You are proficient in several languages. How has that evolved?
I grew up bilingual with English and Dutch in the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean. In high school, we learnt French and German, and I did Latin as well. We could sometimes practise German on the over-dubbed TV programmes (Derrick!) and on holidays. French was different; I never liked it.
Actually, I never thought that I was very good at languages until I left school. Nevertheless, I wanted to learn Spanish as a student. To do so I needed to travel through France. So, I decided to spend a summer there to learn French first. Eventually, I travelled and worked in Spain during my studies.
When I was in France I was surprised about how much I had actually learnt at school. I also discovered that I learn languages more like a child, less in the academic way that was taught at school. When forced to make mistakes (you want to eat and travel!) things progressed rapidly. Mistakes are OK. As long as the meaning is clear, you have communication. Just like in Toastmasters, you say something, observe people’s response and react.
Which of these languages do you still use?
I still use all of them. Currently mainly Spanish, English and Dutch, but I regularly use German and French, too. It does always take me some time to switch between languages. I find that German, my least practiced language, is probably worst for speaking but very good for understanding due to the Dutch connection.
You are very vocal about climate change. What has sparked your interest initially?
My deep interest was sparked when I worked on a Carbon Sequestration project in 2012. I couldn’t help wondering why we knew nothing about climate timelines even though we were designing a multi-billion CCS project specifically to reduce the problem. I then started to study it and poke holes through the massive misinformation available everywhere. Even though publications would disagree in their interpretation, they all relied on the same original data. So, I dug those out and drew my own conclusions. I found that there was no doubt about climate change; all the source data agreed. It was people’s biased narrative that caused confusion in the public debate.
I also realised that “forever” doesn’t exist in engineering. Things are built to last say 10 years, 30 years. We needed to plan for something that lasts 10,000 years! There are no sensors that measure for this long. Even if there were, how would we ensure that anybody cares and pays once we are gone? Thus, a very different time horizon must be considered for such projects – and that kind of thinking is difficult for many engineers.
What has made you take climate action?
For many years I had been looking for the point where my positive impact on the world would be greater from outside the oil industry than from the inside. Then in 2014 Avaaz was looking for people to organise a protest in Aberdeen. Although I initially declined - I had never done anything like this - I ended up setting up Aberdeen Climate Action together with a law lecturer friend to bring awareness into the UK’s oil capital.
I used to be more comfortable dealing with individuals or small groups, not mass movements. However, climate change needs mass action and good publicity. If people see reports about a thousand demonstrators parading the streets in favour of climate action, it can change their mindset. - “If 1000 people think this strongly about it, maybe I should care, too.”
Why is it so hard for renewables to have a break-through?
Renewables, such as wind turbines, are like washing machines – you buy the equipment and keep using it with limited maintenance. Oil is like an addiction. You constantly need fuel; the more you get used to it, the more you end up needing. In that sense, oil seems to be the better cash cow.
The top companies in the world are in the oil or car industry and few in the pharmaceuticals sector. Oil companies obviously depend on carbon consumption and have a lot of power as well as access to tremendous subsidies. The car industry’s stake is less severe. Car manufacturers have an interest in selling petrol or diesel cars because these require more maintenance than electric cars. Dealerships handle and profit from repairs. Thus, when there is less maintenance, it’s harder to maintain a good dealership network. So, car companies will need to adapt their business models. Pharmaceutical companies benefit from pollution because it causes diseases which they can then treat. Thus, the lobby for renewables is not very powerful at the moment.
Profitable renewables businesses can be of a very small size. The economics of renewables are better than the economics of carbon. When you get enough people to wake up to this reality, things will change.
What are you currently working on?
I am slowly doing more and more climate change-related things applying the transferable skills I have built up over the years. I explore ways to implement some of the effective consultancy techniques from the oil industry in the world of sustainability. That's why I am now in the Canary Islands talking to various people from politicians and scientists to farmers and laypeople, looking for a way to get this ‘experiment’ off the ground. It's not really an experiment, of course, because we are using proven techniques and methods; but applying them in a different domain has some challenges.
In parallel, I am involved with bringing integrity and long-term sustainability into the oil industry with Petrostars, a global start-up consultancy headquartered in Aberdeen.
I am also looking for non-executive director positions to share my extensive skills in a range of areas, such as team building, business process change or integrated analysis of highly complex practical problems, with people who can make good use of that.
Tell me more about your ‘experiment’.
There are three main goals which are closely linked. The first one is to make knowledge about sustainability projects available. This would, for example, involve a database of past projects to gather information and process lessons learnt. We would have to make sure that it is easy for sustainability start-ups to get information in and out of that database. Many companies are not very good at this kind of data and information management. The second objective is to support start-ups with a programme office. This would take on tasks like marketing and administration to allow the specialists to concentrate on the technical aspects of their projects. The ultimate goal is to trigger people to work together more within society and be less dependent on politicians. Any change in government or political interests can make or break sustainability efforts. Hence, they must be run by members of the community independently of the political climate to be truly sustainable.
So basically, what I am aiming for is to team up with a few capable people in one place to build such an office. We would work with existing sustainability organisations to tie in their expertise. We would then prioritise issues in an interested community and start working on them. Excellent communication and coordination will obviously be part of all this.
That’s where my oil background comes in. I am used to working with specialists and gauging how they can best contribute to support the bigger project. In this case it is about making an area more sustainable – reducing waste streams, getting more people employed in an interesting and relevant way, making more people have a stake in the local economy so that they don’t just rely on governments or big companies to give them jobs. All these things are slow processes to build on. You start small and grow over time. Such projects will need political support to start off, but they will also need a guarantee that the result is independent of any political influence. To do that, we require a mindset change in the population.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights, Erik.
Interview conducted by Dr Christiane Wirrig