​The public needs to get to know the oil and gas industry’s hidden Elon Musk

Elon Musk isn't a shameless self-promoter. He doesn't have to be. He's a believer. Image: OnInnovation

Why don't people think drilling rigs are as cool as Teslas?

You can't go far on an energy journey these days without tripping over Elon Musk.

And with good reason: he's something of a next-generation energy messiah.

Personable and charismatic. Visionary and creative. Energetic and entrepreneurial.

His very persona exudes the essence of sustainability, coupled with an upbeat hope for a future in which energy and earth co-exist peacefully in harmonious synchronicity.

One wonders what things might be like if there was an Elon Musk with a petroleum persona; a larger-than-life personality capable of defining a vision and stepping boldly toward it—and tugging along people like mesmerized rats dutifully following the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Take the Tesla: it embodies the essence of a sustainable energy future in which creature comforts are not forsaken. It's cool and (notionally) good for the environment in one speedy dream machine. In the world according to Musk, you can have your cake (car) and eat (drive) it too.

Unfortunately for the oil and gas sector, we don't have an Elon Musk. We have big personalities, to be sure, but they're for the most part well-known only within petro circles. They don't create the "external" buzz that comes with building cool cars, redefining battery technology and pondering life on Mars.

We're the poorer for that, because we have no "charisma link" to the broader public, which is happy enough to use the products of our efforts, without dwelling too much on how things (gasoline, heating fuels, refined petroleum products et al) lubricate life as we know it.

Perhaps what we need to is groom such a person; someone capable of pointing to the future and articulating the role a sustainable petroleum economy will play in continuing to positively shape people and society over the next 50 years.

Technology will drive that evolution for the next half century as it has for the past half.

Here's the thing: Elon Musk makes technology cool and notionally accessible even to people who will never own a Tesla or solar-powered roofing shingles.

In the oil and gas sector, we have cool tech too. The list of technological innovations that underpin what society seemingly takes for granted in terms of their life quality is as lengthy as it is fascinating.

Most people, even policy makers, get that petroleum-powered economies will be around for the foreseeable future, even as other energy options become increasingly pervasive and cost-efficient. We will live in an increasingly integrated energy context, to be sure, but of the energy economy's cylinders, most will still house pistons pushed by internal combustion.

The petroleum sector's next 50 years will be characterized by even more amazing technological advances as the industry balances cost and environmental imperatives.

From the drill bit back (and even before spud!), tech innovation will continue to shape the future as companies and their suppliers work collaboratively to manage everything from emissions to water quality.

The rate of tech will increase almost exponentially. Today's rigs are but one example of technology marvels that show up along the entire production values chain.

So here's a question: is there anyone out there who can step up and make a drilling rig as cool as a Tesla—and in the process help the public understand that the fossil fuel industry is hardly fossilizing?

Elon Musk isn't a shameless self-promoter. He doesn't have to be. He's a believer. He's driven by a passion for what he does that captures the public's imagination.

In the past, when the petroleum sector spoke about its achievements, it was more often than not accused of self-aggrandizement. That's made people and companies understandably cautious. After all, once bitten and all that. But perhaps we haven't tugged on the right narrative threads.

Maybe the answer is a full-scale assault on the public's appetite for things with a tech edge. Perhaps the things we consider mere "tools of the trade" are actually the stuff that will fire the public's imagination.

So, petroleum people…who wants to be our Elon Musk?