AAPG and the global petroleum geoscience community are shrinking in response to changes in public and political perceptions of the oil and gas industry. Several multinational oil companies are reducing their investment in oil and gas to go “green” and companies that are actively drilling have reduced their staff through automation so that far fewer geoscientists are needed to do the same job. Accordingly, student enrollments in the geological sciences have plunged and fewer young people are seeking jobs in the oil and gas industry. During the last decade of contraction, some AAPG leaders have struggled over whether AAPG should change and adapt to these changes or continue business as usual even as membership is declining rapidly.
A small but vocal contingent within our membership believes that we simply need to stay the course and everything will work out in the future. Many of these members joined AAPG when our membership was high and our conventions had attendances of 8,000 people or more. The industry was booming and AAPG had cash flow to expand and support a broad array of programs. Those were great times and I can empathize with those who wish we could go back to those days of the past.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, AAPG has had significant operational losses for most of the last decade. In the past, operational losses would have been offset by sponsorship contributions and/or significant asset appreciation within our investment portfolio. That was then.
The here and now has seen continuous transfers out of AAPG’s investment portfolio to provide the membership services that most of us expect from AAPG. Our investment portfolio has diminished significantly in value due to recent losses in the financial markets and our continuous drawdowns. We still have the funds we need to sustain ourselves for the next few years, despite this loss. The worry is that our operational losses will continue and if we experience a more significant downturn in our investment portfolio, we might not be able to sustain our operations at some point not too far into the future.
Unfortunately, it appears that there is little chance that the public’s perception of the petroleum industry and the geosciences will revert back to employment levels of those past days so that we can start rebuilding our rainy day fund. We assume oil and gas revenue will likely cycle back to higher prices. Despite this, the industry continues to improve efficiency by requiring fewer people. The last increase in oil and gas prices and the more recent significant increases have not resulted in a corresponding increase in hiring within the oil industry. AAPG’s losses on operations have continued straight through two improvements in oil prices.
I’m not a gambler, and I don’t want to gamble with AAPG’s legacy or our future. Even if the industry improves somewhat in the future, it is unlikely that we will be able to just continue business as we did back in the good ol’ days. Nor can we keep our head stuck in the sand and continue to operate at the mercy of fluctuations in the financial markets. We need to change our organization in response to the social and economic pressures we are encountering, and adapt to these conditions so that we can ensure our survival.
Adaptation versus Extinction
This reminds me of the historical trends in geoscience like uniformitarianism and catastrophism: the present is the key to the past and geological changes are slow and gradual versus rare major events that caused major changes.
How do these concepts remind me of AAPG’s current situation and our need for change? The staff and much of our leadership have recognized the need for AAPG to address our problems, and we have been diligently working to gradually change and adapt to our situation. We’ve gradually made significant changes over the last few years, such as reducing our staff size by more than 60 percent and eliminating membership programs that were not well attended and were too expensive to support.
This gradual change reminds me of uniformitarianism, and I expect that this process might eventually lead to a solution for our situation over a long period of time. But our budgetary constraints tell us we do not have a long period of time to work with.
Catastrophism is the analogous flip side of this gradual change. A catastrophic comet or meteorite strike ended the Cretaceous Period and eliminated about 65 percent of life on Earth. That rapid change was devastating to those organisms, but it eventually led to the rise of mammals and life as we know it today.
I am not proposing that we need to initiate this degree of extreme change to our organization, but if we wait too long to act, like the dinosaurs, outright extinction may be forced upon us.
Instead, I propose that we consider rapid but organized change so that we can adapt to survive under the conditions we are facing today. I’m old school, and I do wish we could go back to the way things used to be (with due consideration for ensuring diversity and inclusion, of course). But I’m also enough of a realist to know that isn’t going to happen, and if we want to protect our legacy and our Association we are going to have to make some serious changes to how we do business and how we govern our Association.