Why doesn’t the oil industry talk to itself more?

Why doesn’t the oil industry talk more to itself? Or, to be more precise, oil industries, since while of course it’s one global market when it comes to buying and selling, and the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in the North Sea can send Singapore futures soaring, it looks a bit different and slightly more disconnected when you’re down and dirty in the fields of the Middle East and Africa, drilling and spudding and pumping?

Over the past few months, a large part of our research at OpenOil has been focused on the Libyan oil industry. Two field trips; one just before the official liberation for Revenue Watch Institute, and one in December, brought up a number of projects of how we thought we could contribute or help with the enormous task of state-building upon which they are now embarking.

Some were long term projects, such as running capacity building workshops for journalists around the oil industry to create a group of Libyan energy specialists, using our wikiguides as the basis to leave a long lasting information source after the workshops were finished.

Other ideas could, in theory, be a lot quicker to implement and play an equally important role. One such idea sprung up after hearing certain recurring themes mentioned during numerous meetings with Libyan oil industry professionals. It was clear after just a couple of days of interviews that there was a lack of communication between them; despite a huge overlap in their interests and desire to help the industry get back on its feet, there is currently no platform upon which these professionals can air their opinions.

Only 30,000 Libyans actually work in the oil industry, and as a consequence this small proportion of the population carry a huge responsibility. Amongst those 30,000, the number of actual decision makers might be between two and three thousand people, meaning that it is primarily only this group that makes the decisions which affect Libya’s most profitable industry. As with lots of sectors in Libya currently, the oil industry is in need of investment and renovation. For example, despite having heard about widespread lack of investment in refinery equipment, I felt a little like I had stepped into the Tardis aftter actually seeing equipment that had been installed in the 1970s still being used at Zawia Refinery.

We met around 20 individuals, all highly qualified Libyans, working in the industry, in a variety of positions from international oil companies with operations in Libya, to state owned companies and the National Oil Corporation. Many of those we met had informed and intelligent opinions on how the industry could be run, and who better to advise on such a topic than people who had first hand experience of how it had been done? The specific sector in which they work is not important (state owned oil company, or international oil company) as the issues that were brought up centred primarily around how the oil industry itself is run domestically.

Providing a forum for these opinions to be shared and discussed is essential for a number of reasons; it sends a clear signal that the system has changed and is open to discussion, it could lead to collaboration and innovation in the industry, and it avoids the spread of ‘oil industry gossip’ or rumours.

But they need an independent forum to channel that – an oil and gas industry newsletter, run by Libyans within the industry, for Libyans within the industry.

It would inherently be a niche and technical publication, with a target audience of those working in, or with experience of, the Libyan oil industry. Its purpose would be to fill the gap that we noticed during trips in October and December; to provide a resource where oil industry professionals could write articles, opinion pieces, respond to one another, make suggestions and air their professional suggestions. Express their inner oil geeks.

But such genuine open debate within the industry would certainly have positive knock-on into the broader public arena. Experts will differ and when they do, in a free society, they take to the airwaves. Given the immense reach of the Libyan oil industry, it is important that decision making does not become isolated from those who have to live and abide by those decisions. Without a transparent and open forum where these views could be expressed, it’s impossible to know which story or idea will gain traction amongst international and domestic media, and consequently have more of an effect than it might deserve.

Taking into account the high level of education of all of those 30,000 people, there are various options open with regards to the language of the publication; Arabic, or English, or a mixture of them both. I would venture that the very large majority of the intended audience have access to internet, and I know for a fact that a number of them are already known for their online activism, so it could simply be run as an online publication to keep costs to a minimum.

The most crucial point for this publication would be that it retains independence, from both the Libyan state, and from foreign interests. Both sides would be encouraged to read it and see what topics are being discussed; perhaps they could even be encouraged to reply and put forward their points of view, provided it was made clear who was writing and on behalf of whom.

The consequences of establishing such a newsletter would be numerous; firstly, as already mentioned, providing somewhere for this group of professionals to express their point of view and know that people are, for the first time in four decades, listening to them. Secondly, it would provide another 30,000 pairs of eyes upon government decisions in the industry. Industry professionals could, in effect, contribute to holding the government accountable for their actions. And in fact, they are probably amongst the few who actually know enough about what they are talking about to make informed and educated decisions on government policies, given the complexity of the oil industry.

Now more than ever, Libyan people are looking for clear signals that the fall of Gaddafi really has brought positive changes in attitudes and openness within the country. Harnessing the efforts of those who want to contribute to rebuilding their state is one straightforward way that it could be done.

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