Obama official: Oil industry needs a jolt of diversity

When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell worked in the oil patch three decades ago, she was a pioneer who put up with a nearly all-male work force and Hustler pin-ups at drill sites.

“As a woman working in the energy industry myself,” Jewell recalled Wednesday, “you had to have a pretty thick skin, because there weren’t a lot of people that were like you or that you appeared to connect with.”

Fast forward 32 years. While overt sexism may have left the oilfield, there still aren’t a lot of women in it. Ditto for people of color, Jewell observed.

“The population of our country is far more diverse than this industry as a whole, so I think the industry has some work to do,” Jewell said on the sidelines of the Offshore Technology Conference. Her assessment was driven partly by a quick tour of the showroom floor, a visit to an offshore oil rig and production facility last week and recent talks with workers from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

“I don’t see the level of diversity that reflects the U.S. population in this industry,” Jewell said. “I didn’t when I worked in it before and I don’t when I walk around the floor here, and I didn’t when I was on a rig and I don’t when I go to the BOEM and BSEE folks . . . in New Orleans.”

Related story: Jewell tells oil execs: Don’t throw regulators under the bus

Jewell acknowledged that the oil industry and regulators that police it recognize the workforce is more homogenous than it could be. The looming retirement of an entire generation of oil workers — dubbed “the big crew change” — presents an opportunity to remake the workforce.

“We all need to work together to create an environment that is welcoming of women, of people of color, of people with different backgrounds, because the industry is missing some super-talented folks who could strengthen it,” Jewell said. ”

“I also see a lot of retirements (among) a lot of talented people that have really built the industry to where it is, who are my age,” said Jewell, who is 57. “Within a reasonable period of time you’re going to have a significant brain drain.”

The oil industry and regulators who police it “have an incredible opportunity now to nurture and grow talent,” Jewell added.

Jewell, who was sworn in as the interior secretary last month, spent three years working in Oklahoma and Colorado for Mobil Oil Co. at the start of her career. Before that, she focused on pipeline issues for GE in Alaska, specifically examining the best ways to bury pipeline in that icy landscape without melting the surrounding permafrost. More recently, she has been the chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc.