Engineering the Right Future Imperial College, London 16th November 2010
“ Engineering the Right Future”
Iain Conn Chief Executive BP Refining & Marketing Newitt Lecture 2010
16th November, 2010
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be with you this evening. In fact, it’s special for me as it illuminates for me three important commendations. First, I realize it’s now more than 25 years since I was one of you – preparing to graduate from Imperial College as a chemical engineer and to make my way in the world. Second, a recognition of how in the intervening quarter century the world has changed - not just of the amount of change, but ...view middle of the document...
Then it elevates the standard of living and adds to the comfort of life. This is the engineer’s high privilege.” That is certainly an accurate account but I’m not sure it’s completely adequate. I don’t think it quite captures the key role that engineering has to play in addressing some of the most important issues concerning our future on this planet. That’s the potential of your position as our next generation of engineers, and why you should feel truly excited about what lies ahead for you. The question is how you can play that role and fulfill that potential to best effect. I believe the answer lies in realizing that engineering does not exist in isolation. It needs to work in close conjunction with policy and politics on the one hand and with business on the other. It needs to connect with the worlds of ideas and practical commerce and to face up to real choices. It needs to understand the magnitude of what is at stake. Churchill put it in characteristically stark terms in June 1940 as he contemplated what at the time seemed a catastrophic future for mankind. If Britain failed to halt Hitler, he said: “The whole world will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science.” Science in the service of evil could enslave mankind. But what of applied science in the service of the good – in the cause of averting catastrophe? I’m an optimist and, I like to think, a pragmatist. The two don’t always go together. In the matter of engineering the right future for mankind in the 21st Century, they have to. The alternative is not an encouraging one.
BP and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill
Deepwater Horizon Incident
As I said, I will illustrate this by talking about the field I know best, the energy business. I’ll start with recent events involving the company I have worked for since leaving Imperial in 1985, BP. Just under seven months ago, a drilling rig working on the Macondo well in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico exploded, caught fire and sank. Tragically, 11 men lost their lives. And for 87 days thereafter, oil and gas continued to pour from the wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface, with the significant consequences you have all read about and seen on TV. Everyone at BP is devastated by what has happened - the distress of families over lost loved ones, the damage to livelihoods and the environment along the Gulf coast. We are doing everything in our power to meet our commitments to make it right. And we have stated our determination to learn and share the lessons from this disaster for the future. But I want to also talk this evening about the wider significance of this event, because it goes to the very heart of two key issues involving energy and engineering. There was a good reason why the Macondo well was being drilled in the first place. It’s because the world badly needs the oil and gas that reside beneath the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and...