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AFPM '19: Executives tout workforce diversity, sustainability and corporate stewardship

By ADRIENNE BLUME, Executive Editor, Hydrocarbon Processing

An executive panel discussion on Monday afternoon, moderated by AFPM President Chet Thompson, addressed the issues of workforce, operational and environmental sustainability in the refining and petrochemical industries.

Panelists included Mike Coyle, President of Manufacturing for Chevron USA; Joe Gorder, Chairman, President and CEO of Valero Energy Corp.; Todd Fredin, Executive Vice President of Motiva Enterprises; Mark Lashier, President and CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.; Loic Vivier, Senior Vice President of Fuels for ExxonMobil Fuels and Lubricants Co.; and David Lamp, President and CEO of CVR Energy Inc.

Workforce diversity and inclusion are top priorities

Coyle talked about the definition of sustainability and how the industry can develop a workforce for the future. More diversity is needed, Coyle said. “Look at this panel, for example—we all look alike,” Coyle said. “Well, we have one French guy,” he quipped, eliciting a smile from Vivier.

Taking a more serious tone, Coyle next discussed the challenges facing the industry going forward, including how to interest young people in working in the energy sector and how to craft the workforce with diversity and inclusion as guidelines.

“How do we get our workforces to look more like the communities where we operate?” Coyle asked. “White men in leadership positions can affect the change. We need to change what we do today to change the future of our workforce.” Gorder noted, “We are a largely male workforce. This is changing as we go forward, but this is just the way it is right now. Approximately 20% of engineering graduates are women, and we work very hard to recruit them. To have the best organizations, we need to have really good people.” “The easiest thing for us to do as leaders in the industry is to continue to do what we have always done in the past, just because it works,” Gorder said. “We can’t do that anymore.”

He noted that views on diversity from younger generations entering the workforce are becoming more evident to older generations in management positions.

He gave an example of addressing Valero Energy’s summer interns, not all of whom appreciated his view that gender and ethnicity are not as important as “everyone rowing in the same direction and working their hardest to succeed.” The mixed feedback from interns made Gorder realize that younger generations may want to be appreciated for their differences, rather than being lumped into a single group, which has since made him change his views on diversity in the workplace.

Addressing knowledge gaps during the Great Crew Change

Thompson then noted that the US oil and gas workforce is aging, and asked, “How much of a concern is it that we have proper knowledge transfer to younger workers?”

Coyle explained how Chevron is doing more mentoring of new and young employees than ever before. The company is also striving for longer transition periods between jobs so that critical skills can be fully developed by younger workers.

Gorder noted that subject matter experts do a great job of sharing their knowledge with younger people in organizations. At the plant level, management can forecast what retirement schedules will look like, so that upcoming vacancies may be filled by well-trained individuals.

Thompson also remarked that younger workers tend to consider a company’s social commitments before deciding where they want to work. In a recent survey, 87% of younger workers said they considered company social commitments to be a major factor in their decision on where to work—a trend that the industry must address.

Lashier asserted that sustainability is, and should be, a significant part of corporate culture. “How we can help the world be a better place resonates with our employees,” he said. Corporate sustainability and responsibility must be articulated to employees so that they can feel good about themselves and the work they do for their industries and their communities.

Fredin explained how Motiva Enterprises has donated $6 MM, since Hurricane Harvey, toward infrastructure improvement and repair projects, as well as toward workforce development through hands-on, innovative platforms for teaching process technology.

“We understand that we have a role in community development,” he said. “We need to partner with communities to have a sustainable future for both the companies and the communities in which they operate.”

Changing the narrative on US fossil fuels

Lamp took a different tack on the subject of corporate responsibility. He spoke about how the industry has transitioned to cleaner fuels and transportation methods while reducing its environmental footprint over the past 20 years. “And we’ve only been demonized for it,” he said.

“We’ve made so many improvements, but now they’re talking about doing away with our industry completely [with the Green New Deal],” he said. Lamp noted that the industry, however responsible it may already be, must change its narrative and public education to maintain its relevance going forward.

Coyle noted that the US education system helps foster some of this demonization. “We need to get more facts out there to change the thought process and the view of our industry,” he asserted.

“It starts with our individual companies,” Gorder said. “We must educate our own employees. We’re bringing millennials in, and a lot of them think differently than we do. We need to help them develop the understanding about what we’re doing, and how what we’re doing makes people’s lives better … We have [sustainability] data coming out of our ears. We know that what we do is good, and we know why it’s good, but we’re pretty miserable at communicating it to others. We need to change that.”

Environmental stewardship is key

Vivier spoke about how ExxonMobil has been practicing environmental stewardship for decades. The company has an operations integrity management system in place to monitor the total health of operations from top to bottom.

ExxonMobil has also invested $9 B in energy efficiency and environmental improvements, as well as carbon capture and other environmental initiatives. “But we’re not done yet,” Vivier said. “We will continue to improve our performance.”

Gorder noted that business processes related to plant operations have changed to help avoid major emissions releases during plant upsets, while Coyle remarked that reclaimed water usage at refineries has become cleaner and more environmentally conscious.

Lashier then explained how 30 petrochemical and product manufacturing companies have come together in a recycling effort. The target is to raise $1.5 B to change infrastructure processes, especially in third-world countries where waste management is a significant problem that leads to pollution in waterways and, eventually, pollution in the oceans. He also told attendees about a startup company that is recycling polystyrene back into styrene monomer, which is then used to make new polystyrene.

“We are looking at innovation, infrastructure and education,” Lashier said. “Unless we step up to make the beaches cleaner and clean up the oceans, no one will take us seriously, and our industry will face extinction.” 

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