AAPG’s decline in membership is a frequent topic of discussion today. AAPG membership is about 17,000 and has declined very rapidly in the last few years. Some good folks think membership should return to the 1980s high, but those expectations can be tempered by understanding history.
Boom and bust cycles have occurred in commodities since at least 1900 (see figure 1). AAPG membership follows oil boom cycles. Two major oil boom cycles led to profound increases in AAPG memberships (figure 2). But two major bust cycles have also occurred: one in the 1960s and one today. Both bust cycles followed the discovery of enormous volumes of hydrocarbons. After World War II, AAPG membership grew quickly but went flat throughout the 1960s. Total membership plateaued at 15,000. During this time, Middle East oil fields were brought online. This flush production resulted in the 1960s bust.
The ‘60s were a dreadful time for AAPG. T.D. Barrow wrote in the 1966 AAPG Bulletin, “Much has been written and said in recent years to suggest that ‘Petroleum Geology’ is dead.” There was even talk of changing AAPG’s name. Sound familiar?
Today, we are living in another bust cycle caused by the shale revolution. The United States brought production online equal in volume to two Saudi Arabias: one in oil and one in natural gas. Total AAPG membership grew by 10,000 during the shale boom. More importantly, total membership grew by 15,000 above the decline trend (figure 3A).
Therefore, oil and gas jobs, and AAPG, were appealing. Young people were not wringing their hands about “oil’s bad image,” or a need for “virtue statements” from AAPG. But few in the shale revolution cohort found enough value to become voting members.
Causes of the 1980s Boom
AAPG membership grew rapidly during the 1970 and ‘80s boom. The unprecedented membership peak in the early 1980s was caused by the confluence of four major factors: an oil-price boom, the baby boom generation entering the job market, a drilling boom and America’s peak in manufacturing employment (figures 3 and 4). It is very unlikely these conditions will be repeated.
The oil boom started in 1973 and lasted until about 1984. Nominal oil prices tripled overnight in 1973 and increased elevenfold by 1981 from the 1972 low. Imagine if oil prices today were to increase to $240 in the next three months and then steadily climb to $850 by 2034. The 1970s price increases drove all companies’ capital expenditure budgets higher, and this in turn drove AAPG membership.
The 1970s price boom coincided with the baby boom generation entering the job market. The baby boom births peaked in 1956 (figure 4). By 1977, four years into the boom, baby boomers born in 1952 were 25 years old and entering the job market.
A drilling boom also peaked in the early 1980s (figure 3B). The drilling boom was driven by more than just high prices. Nominal oil prices increased fourfold during the shale boom, but the rig count only reached half of the 1980s level. The tax code explains the difference. The old tax code had very high marginal tax rates but included lucrative tax write-offs for drilling wells. Money flowed into drilling investments, even if the prospects did not make a lot of sense. The tax laws were changed in 1986.
America’s manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 and have been declining ever since. Most geologists in AAPG have “manufacturing jobs,” as defined by the Bureau of Labor statistics. Also, mining jobs have declined by 50 percent since 1980, per the BLS. The U.S. Bureau of Mines was closed in 1996. Today, mining is actively opposed by the very government that espouses going green. The Twin Metals mine in the Superior National Forest of Minnesota holds critical supplies of copper, cobalt and nickel needed for the energy transition. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland banned mining, and even drilling for geothermal energy, in the Superior National Forest!
AAPG Voting Membership Peak
The 1970s boom brought a peak in voting membership and this cohort has declined ever since. It did not rise meaningfully even during the shale boom (figure 3A).
The lack of an increase in full members during the shale boom perplexed me until I re-read some of the work of the economist Milton Freidman. People act rationally in economic matters, he pointed out. It is economically rational to not join AAPG because non-members have LinkedIn for networking and they can get free PDFs of AAPG talks from Search and Discovery. S&D is not behind a pay-wall. If a non-member finds a one-off article in the Bulletin they want, they can buy it for far less than the cost of AAPG membership. This is all very rational behavior.
Declining Membership Today
The double bust of low oil prices and COVID has cut AAPG membership. COVID has also decimated membership of churches, gyms and even the North Harris County Dulcimer Society. I have spoken with hundreds of AAPG members during two membership drives. Here are some anecdote-based causes for the recent rapid decline.
The baby boom generation is retiring.
AAPG’s incessant message about an “energy transition” that will make the oil-and-gas member’s job obsolete has taken a toll. Members feel AAPG does not care for its oil and gas professionals. I spoke to non-AAPG young professionals at a talk I gave in Corpus Christi. One YP said, “AAPG is apologizing for oil and gas” while another intoned, “What kind of a professional society is that?” A senior professional who quit AAPG said, “AAPG is always chasing butterflies.”
These anecdotal observations are not a rigorous study. Doubtless others have heard different reasons.
Future Membership Growth
Today’s commodity bust cycle will grade into a profoundly tighter market in the next two to four years. This will translate into more members for AAPG, perhaps another 5,000. However, AAPG returning to 40,000 members is a “thin-tail probability.” As former President Rick Fritz rightly points out, technology allows each person to do more work.
The greatest challenge for AAPG is to provide sufficient value for geoscientists to become full members.