How Do Engineers Stop Giving Their Clients What They Want?

Article by Tom Baxter CEng FIChemE

When engineers have to choose between business and principles

FOR many years I was Technical Director for Aberdeen’s largest Oil and Gas Consultancy. Part of my responsibilities was winning work for around 150 consultants. As a consequence I spent a lot of time responding to invitations to tender and client scopes. As you might expect, the tender response we sent back to clients was aligned with their required deliverables. Because, like most people in my position, I followed the mantra: “Give the client what they want”. Now I’m starting to have second thoughts.

Since my retirement from that position, hydrogen has become a significant part of the oil and gas sector. If you’ve been following my previous articles for The Chemical Engineer, it will be clear that I have very strong reservations regarding the use of hydrogen in many net zero applications. I have particular concerns relating to blue hydrogen, which involves reforming fossil fuels and then capturing and burying the associated emissions. But CCS is always partial and the fugitive methane emissions that result during production and transportation are significant. There are safety implications too. A blue hydrogen plant adds a new hazardous step in the process of supplying energy and is therefore less inherently safe.

There’s also a tradeoff in efficiency. The thermal efficiency of a blue hydrogen reforming process is around 70–75%. The upshot is that the UK will have to produce or import more fossil gas for each kW of heat or mechanical work. At a time when the UK should be minimising energy use, blue hydrogen seems wrong-headed.

A number of emerging studies are highlighting the lack of understanding of the climate impacts of blue hydrogen, suggesting that its emissions can be as bad or even worse than simply burning fossil fuels. And it is interesting to note that the German Government has now withdrawn support for blue hydrogen.

Furthermore, blue hydrogen is not a net zero stepping stone to becoming green. Once invested in, blue hydrogen facilities will, as is the case for most chemical plants, be operational for 20–30 years.

The $64,000 question

So I ask myself, what would I do today if I was still in my previous role and received an invitation to tender for engineering support on a blue hydrogen project?

I don’t have to think long: I would prepare a tender targeted at winning the work. I would give the client what they wanted. I would not voice an opinion that I thought the proposed project was flawed because that would be shooting my business in the foot. I wonder how many other engineering service providers are in the same place today, and how they feel about it?

It’s business, right? Why look a gift horse in the mouth? Follow the money and give the client what they want?

This is the part where I’d normally outline how we as a profession might fix this issue – the change in behaviour needed for us to halt walking in lockstep with the market towards a worse climate future. But I’m struggling to see one. If I were to tell the client issuing the tender that they had it wrong, I suspect my pushback would be ignored and they’d simply select a competitor that met their brief.

What can be done, dear reader, to break the cycle?

Article by Tom Baxter CEng FIChemE

Retired Senior Lecturer at Aberdeen University, Visiting Professor of Chemical Engineering at Strathclyde University, and retired Technical Director, Genesis Oil and Gas Consultants

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