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‘Your generation got us in this mess’: children of big oil employees discuss the climate crisis with their parents | Climate crisis
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‘Your generation got us in this mess’: children of big oil employees discuss the climate crisis with their parents | Climate crisis

In the 1990s, Houston was known as the smog capital of the US


What do you do if your family has strong ties to the oil industry and all agree that fossil fuels are accelerating the climate crisis.

For one family, the fossil fuel industry’s role in stoking the climate emergency is more than just a dinner table debate. It’s their legacy. Andy and Wendy met while working as engineers at Exxon in the 1970s. They worked for Exxon for many years while raising their children.

Andy and Wendy, now a retired couple, drove from Washington to spend the holidays in Santa Claus with their son James and their daughter Liz. Liz also has two sons with her husband Dara. The Guardian spoke with the family the day before Thanksgiving to discuss their views on the climate crisis and their relationship with fossil fuels.

Participants include:

  • Andy, 65 years old, retired engineer

  • Wendy, 62, is a retired engineer

  • Liz, 33, is an environmental safety manager

  • Dara, 35, Liz’s husband and engineer

  • James, 31, IT consultant

Andy and Wendy met while working at Mobile.

Andy: We were making synthetic fuels back then. We were trying to solve the energy crisis by creating new types of fuels. In that group, Wendy and me met. After Exxon’s merger, they moved us all from New Jersey to Texas. A large number of us made that move. That creates certain bonds.

Was global warming ever mentioned in that group?

Wendy: We discussed more about air quality and the effects of burning fossil fuels. There’s so much pollution in Houston that sometimes the kids’ sports were canceled because of air quality. We discussed more about the negative impacts of fossil fuels and global warming than we did about air quality.

In the 1990s, Houston was known as the smog capital of the US
Houston was the US’s smog capital in the 1990s. Photograph: tomwald/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In 2004, we bought a Prius and drove it to Exxon every single day. All of our coworkers had this whole conversation about driving a Prius.

Andy: My colleagues were giving me the eyeball. They just didn’t understand why anyone would ever do such a thing.

Liz and James, can you recall when you first learned about the work of your parents?

Liz: There were many Bring Your Kids to Work Days in the 1990s. So I used to accompany my dad to work at Mobile. But it wasn’t until high school that I really understood what the oil and gas industry is and how it impacts people.

James: It was a result of us moving around. Due to the merger with Exxon Mobil we moved around a few times so people could ask me, “Oh, are your parents in military service?” And I had to say, no, they’re oil and gas.

Did you feel uncomfortable telling your parents that you worked in fossil fuels as a child?

Liz: I don’t remember feeling a sense of shame then. When I was in college, I felt a strong pull to pursue a career that could reverse the effects climate change. I studied environmental science at Washington University. It was in college that I discovered how Exxon knew for so long about climate change, and had covered it up. I felt strongly that I don’t want to purchase Exxon gas.

James: I was in highschool at the time of the BP oil spillage, the Deepwater Horizon. Being in Bellingham, which has such a liberal area, a lot of my peers were upset about it. It was very upsetting for me. However, my mom was also working for BP.

[To Wendy]You wanted to defend the company. So there were many words: this could have been done to anyone, there was a significant amount risk taken in the Gulf at the moment, and a lot companies were cutting corners. You still have to hold people accountable for the choices they make.

Eleven people died after BP’s offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on 21 April 2010.
Eleven people died after BP’s offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on 21 April 2010.Photograph: US Coast Guard/Getty Images

Liz: The incident was very disturbing to me, more than any other family member. The fact that people continue to fuel their cars with gas every single day is what really irritated me. And maybe they’re boycotting BP gas, but by continuing to consume, people are contributing to the problem. And so there’s this awful hypocrisy in that after each of these incidents. We can all play the blame game and yet there hasn’t been any shift away from consuming gasoline and diesel.

Andy: I wouldn’t say there’s not been any shift.

Liz: Maybe. Slow and gradual.

Andy: Right, but not fast enough to get us where we want.

Wendy, you were working for BP at the time of the spillage. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Wendy: It really affected you. The safety part, in terms of colleagues’ deaths, is the environmental part. I mean, I was tearing up when I heard the children talk about it right now.

It was a moral reckoning. It was obvious that the fossil fuel industry is flawed on so many levels. I realized that I was lost. I started in synthetic fuels. The path eventually led me to conventional oil & gas.

At that point, I was still a long way from the top in the industry. I had two kids in college, so I asked myself ‘what can I do within this industry to do something impactful and valuable?’ That’s why I accepted a safety project in Alaska.

What is the family’s conversation about fossil fuels at the dinner table?

Dara: What I enjoy about our conversations with Andy & Wendy is that we hold them accountable. Your generation, you guys are the ones who got us into this mess. I mean, I don’t think you guys disagree.

Liz: When I first decided to pick my own electricity provider, I was so excited that there was a 100% renewable option. The first thing I did was call my dad and say, Dad, tell me you’re purchasing 100% renewable power. One year later, we had our first garden. I bought a large composting bin for the backyard. And Dad called me to say, “hey Dad! You guys are composting!”

Liz, it’s hard to imagine you came to this career in environmental protection accidentally, that it’s unconnected from your parents’ career choices.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do something different when I went to college. [of my parents]. I wanted the best possible climate change mitigation. And I spent the first 11 years of my career working in the oil and gas industry and in the environment, health and safety field, and there’s a lot of opportunities to talk about sustainability within that framework.

But my personal experience is, you can be as loud as you want but unless you have buy-in from the top, it’s not going to happen. There are many energy companies that see environmental reporting as a way of pacifying shareholders and not driving real change.

Andy and his family now favor a climate-conscious, plant-based diet. This past Thanksgiving, they opted out of the traditional turkey dinner.
Andy and his family now eat a climate-conscious, plant based diet. They opted to forgo the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner this year.Photograph: Courtesy the family

Andy and Wendy, how did it feel to hear Liz say that she wanted the opposite career path from you?

AndyLiz, we can sense her passion and she pushes us. And that’s a positive influence. We’re feeling the push. That’s our way of saying we’re not stuck in the blame game. That’s very complicated. But no matter what, that’s all in the past.

Your children are Liz and Dara Three five. How has the arrival and development of this new generation changed the world?

Wendy: When we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, we’re having stuffed acorn squash, the vegan version. Our plant-based eating is heavily influenced by the climate. So, you know, we’ll have that conversation with the boys around why there’s not a turkey on the table.

Liz: In the previous generation, people spoke about race in polite and coded ways. Now, we openly discuss racism and Black Lives Matter. It’s the same thing to me with climate change. We’re not beating around the bush. We have books for children about climate change. And when we tell them bedtime stories, it’s about climate change. We want them understand it and to name it so they can talk to their friends.

Dara: Liz and me disagree a little. The five-year-old and I have a lot of fun discussing climate change at night. It also opens up many questions about how it happened. Who did it? I don’t know if it’s necessarily healthy for him to know all of that information. And sometimes I don’t even have the answers.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global network of news outlets that focuses on the climate story and bolsters coverage


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