Moving from Uncertainty to Opportunity for Oil and Gas Workers

A recent report from True Transition captures a range of oil and gas worker experiences and finds potential for a skills transfer between fossil fuel and renewable energy jobs.

Workers surrounding and drilling a well in Paducah, Kentucky for groundwater cleanup.

Workers drill a well to pump groundwater and help with cleanup efforts in Paducah, Kentucky, on July 18, 2012.


U.S. Department of Energy

A recent report from True Transition captures a range of oil and gas worker experiences and finds potential for a skills transfer between fossil fuel and renewable energy jobs. True Transition’s "Future of Energy & Work in The United States" oil and gas worker survey is another useful tool for government leaders and renewable energy business owners to consider as momentum builds toward an energy transition that ensures oil and gas workers have productive roles in the future economy.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 117,500 oil and gas extraction workers employed across the U.S. in 2021. A Brookings Institute report using a slightly wider scope found that there were nearly 1.7 million people employed in fossil fuel industries in 2019, “which include extraction activities like mining, electricity generation, utility construction, pipelines, and other related manufacturing." Although these numbers have declined from historic peaks in the 1980s, this workforce has proven essential to powering the U.S. economy for decades, and they possess a unique set of skills that may—if understood and carefully redeployed—help accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

A survey by workers for workers

True Transition is a local Louisiana organization led by former oil and gas industry workers that formed as a response to the injustices oil and gas workers face in their industry, has sought to better understand these employment trends, the experiences and desires of oil and gas workers, and the options most readily available to them to play a role in the energy transition. From late 2021-2022, True Transition conducted a survey with the hope of uncovering common ground and trends among workers. Using social media, they received responses from 1,635 oil and gas workers, most of them self-identifying as blue-collar, which they compiled into their report "Future of Energy & Work in The United States.” 

Within the report’s findings, three key themes emerged that are central to helping answer the questions surrounding how best to approach a just energy transition, especially the transition of fossil energy workers. These themes involve historic and near-term labor trends; attitudes toward work and treatment of workers; and opportunities and challenges for skill transfer to other industries. 

The first key finding from the 38-question survey focused on job losses and labor trends within the oil and gas industry: 

The number of oil and gas positions has continued to decline in the past several years despite fossil fuels continuing to be the main energy source in the U.S. and oil and gas production approaching record levels.

The points below support this finding: 

  • More than 50% of survey respondents had lost their jobs at least once before 2020 
  • More than 50% of respondents lost their jobs during the COVID-19-induced energy shock of 2020
  • There was a deficit of more than 150,000 jobs in the petroleum industry, and of more than 10,000 jobs in the gas industry between 2019 and 2021 according to the 2022 USEER (U.S. Energy and Employment Report)
  • When comparing today’s oil and gas industry employment to its peak numbers—for workers focused on extraction—the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that: 
  • At its peak, the oil and gas industry had a total of 257,000 workers in 1982; 
  • Its lowest-ever recorded number of workers was in 2021 with a total of 110,700 people, more than half its peak 1982 figures; and 
  • Despite continued increases in oil and gas production since 2021’s low, very few new oil and gas industry jobs have returned. 

Mechanization of oil and gas extraction has also meant that many jobs lost are unlikely to return at any point in the future. A 2020 Deloitte statistical analysis found “as much as 70% of jobs lost during the pandemic may not come back by the end of 2021 in a consensus business-as-usual scenario." Similarly, a Rystad Energy 2021 report found 2 out of every 10 workers may be replaced by 2030, with jobs relating to inspection, maintenance, and repair (IMR) operations becoming obsolete while saving large employers $7 billion. These trends underscore True Transition’s finding that among older surveyed workers there was a strong sentiment that their skills are becoming outdated. The workers also lack computer training with which they could otherwise search for other roles in the same field. 

Graph showing the number of oil and gas extraction workers from 1972 to 2022

The second key takeaway from the report is the following focused on job satisfaction and dissatisfaction among oil and gas workers:  

There is both a reported sense of comradery and a positive attitude toward their work, as well as a perception of inequitable pay and benefits based on the amount and difficulty of their labor. 

The report found: 

  • One third of workers surveyed were discontent with their pay in relation to the level of work completed
  • Only 46% of the respondents received disability insurance from their employer, while 54% of workers noted they did not have any employer-sponsored disability insurance. 

Gaps in basic employee support such as disability insurance and fair pay underscore systemic equity and fairness issues across the oil and gas industry. To add insult to injury, 10 out of 19 of the largest U.S. oil and gas companies reported their CEOs earned more than 100 times their median worker’s total salary in 2021. Across these 10 companies, a total of more than 20,000 oil and gas workers lost their jobs between 2020 and 2021, meaning higher-ups preferred to lose thousands of blue-collar employees than to face any cut to their hefty salaries. Large pay inequity for lower-wage workers is one of the system failures that a Just Transition should aim to target both to gain trust from workers and create a healthy local and state economy. As we recommended in an earlier post, the energy transition is not only a critical juncture for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions but also an opportunity for enhancing justice and equity across the energy workforce. 

Just Transition Efforts to Support Oil and Gas Workers 

The energy transition represents an astonishing opportunity to reimagine the U.S. workforce, ensure diverse access to opportunity, and enhance fairness and equity, especially for those undertaking the most physically demanding jobs. Though we have focused here on oil and gas workers, several additional recommendations are essential to keep in mind both for this unique group of workers as well as anyone seeking to play a role in building out the clean energy economy:

  • Financial assistance for workers looking to enter the renewable energy industry or looking to transition away from the oil and gas industry will lower barriers to entry and ensure that we do not miss the opportunity to not only enhance personal economic security but also the efficient transfer of skills between industries 
  • Strategies to increase underrepresented groups’ involvement in the transition to clean energy must be pursued to advance overarching access, equity, and justice goals— 
  • In oil and gas extraction, Black workers composed only 5.4% of the workforce and women composed only 16% of the workforce in 2022
  • In clean energy, Black workers made up 8% of the total workforce, while women composed just short of 30% of this workforce
  • Assessments on worker experiences and representation should take place to retain and welcome more workers from underrepresented groups like BIPOC, women, and non-binary folks to right the wrongs of the past 
  • Safety standards should reduce risks for workers on the job and companies should be held accountable for dangerous working conditions 
  • Oil and gas workers should be more involved in discussions about how to best assist them in exploring for, training for, and applying for clean energy jobs 
  • Greater access to unions and unionization should be a priority for policymakers and job creation incentives should be tied, to the extent possible, to expanded unionization within the clean energy trades 
Worker measuring fill hole site.

A worker measures a fill hole at Weeks Island, Louisiana, one of the strategic petroleum reserve sites across the U.S., providing storage to 75 million barrels of crude oil. 


U.S. Department of Energy

In a just transition, the health, economic stability, and overall satisfaction workers feel towards their job conditions are interconnected with creating a sustainable economy and environment for future generations to enjoy and current ones to develop. Where the fossil fuel industry has failed its workers, the just transition must intentionally address and improve by learning from the workers' experiences and centering equity and justice for groups left behind.  

The survey that led to this report by True Transition could serve as a replicable tool for other towns and states looking to embrace the opportunities and benefits of a just transition. If no plan to provide more reliable employment for workers is in place, unemployment will continue to rise in oil and gas-dependent areas, leaving families without a source of income, state funding gaps, and an untapped highly skilled workforce that could be employed to support the clean energy transition. True Transition’s "Future of Energy & Work in The United States" report provides a vital window to understand the interwoven issues and potential for oil and gas workers if decision-makers can intentionally involve their feedback to plan a cleaner and more equitable energy transition.   

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