Ten minutes with…ANGEA Senior Advisor Neil Theobald
The Asia Natural Gas and Energy Association (ANGEA) takes great delight in bringing you the stories of the people helping shape Asia’s energy landscape – including their histories in industry, their views on the biggest issues in energy and a little bit about their lives outside of work.
First cab off the rank in our new 10 Minutes With… content series is Neil Theobald, a well-known and highly-respected figure in the global gas and LNG industries.
You’re now in your 40th year working in oil and gas, can you give us a brief rundown of your career and where it has taken you?
I graduated in Chemical Engineering in 1983 and initially worked offshore in the North Sea as a Drilling Engineer. I moved to Mobil in Aberdeen in the mid 1980s and was assigned to their international drilling group in Dallas in 1990. However, I was diverted to Australia and worked on exploration in the Timor Sea, relocating to Melbourne in 1991. The Mobil Australia office was small and I had the opportunity to work on business issues as well as engineering – one of those things was a gas transport and sales contract which set me on a very different career path. I was keen to stay in Australia so volunteered for any work that was available, including Mobil Australia’s acquisition of an Australian upstream company called Ampolex. This was in 1997 and I moved to Perth when we consolidated the offices. Ampolex owned part of the Gorgon Project and in 1999 with the creation of ExxonMobil I became responsible for their interest in Gorgon. This meant working extensively with Chevron and in 2004 I joined Chevron to manage the Gorgon marketing effort. This involved much travel to Asia and I was fortunate to be part of the teams that moved the Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG projects from inception through to production. I moved to Singapore in 2013 to manage commercial aspects of Chevron’s LNG business and ended up as Chevron’s Vice President of Global LNG. I retired from Chevron in 2021 and began advisory work with a range of clients including ANGEA and McKinsey.
What was it that first attracted you to working in oil and gas?
I graduated during a recession in the UK and North Sea oil was one of the few areas that was recruiting. It also offered a mix of office and onsite work and the prospect of working overseas. The North Sea in 1970/80s really was a frontier of engineering, and of course the money was very good for someone just out of university!
Your early career would have taken you offshore in the North Sea in the 1980s, what was that experience like?
It was a sink or swim type of experience, which I think is less common now. My fellow recruits and I had engineering qualifications but little practical knowledge. The work we did seemed mundane on the surface, but it was the best training I could have asked for – managing logistics, planning drilling work, working with the rig crew and contractors. Among the skills we learned that are still useful are what to do when you are theoretically in charge but know much less than those around you, and how to act when there is a significant crisis and you are being looked to for leadership. I was also fortunate in that I didn’t mind the remote work, which some others found challenging.
Anyone who talks to you about LNG, gas and energy will immediately pick up how passionate and curious you are those subjects. Where does that come from?
I find the geopolitics and business of energy fascinating, it really is one of the epic stories of the industrial age. Energy makes the modern world possible and fossil fuels, despite their issues, provide the bulk of that energy. So much of what we take for granted relies on them. So the challenge to transition away from them is enormous and how we do that will impact the global economy for decades. Being part of that is a great privilege.
How did your involvement with ANGEA come about and what interested you in working with our organisation?
When I retired from Chevron I was interested in continuing my involvement in the energy industry, especially in the policy areas and in Asia. Chevron was a founder member of ANGEA so that’s how the opportunity came about.
What do you enjoy most about your role with ANGEA?
The work itself is interesting and it gives me the opportunity to maintain the networks I built up over the years. And to build new ones in places like Vietnam and India where I had limited experience before.
What’s one thing you’d like the world to know or understand about the current energy situation in Asia?
That the view of the climate challenge is very different in Asia, and Asia is where the climate battle will be won or lost. Developing countries do not have the luxury of climate solutions that could drive their populations back to poverty. They have to balance energy security, economic growth and the environment in a different way to Europe and North America, and simply lecturing governments in Asia about emissions targets will not be a successful strategy.
Is there a theme or a trend in gas or energy that has captured your attention in recent times, which we’re likely going to see more of?
The climate is the most significant. The road to net zero is almost impossibly challenging and it is not clear what the most effective pathways will be. We should not rule out potential solutions based on ideology, which seems to be happening in many places. Examples are nuclear, where costs need to be driven down through a design one, build many approach and also carbon capture and storage which will be vital to have any chance of reaching our targets. So all of the options will be needed.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve observed in the oil and gas industry over your career?
Safety culture has changed completely. Fatalities have reduced significantly and the focus on safety is now a part of everyone’s job. Production technology has obviously improved but the connectivity of organisations is also radically different. It is now possible to effectively run global businesses in a centralised manner, sharing best practices and becoming more efficient. Previously, global organisations devolved much more control to the remote locations which may have been more interesting to work in but was usually less effective.
You’ve done plenty of travelling in your time, what would be your No. 1 piece of advice for staying fresh and focussed on the road (or, probably more accurately, in the air and at airports)?
I try to eat or drink half of whatever is offered. I’m not always successful, but the aspiration is there.
Finally, what does Neil Theobald like to do when he’s away from the worlds of gas and LNG?
I’m trying to see more of Western Australia. I’ve had a home in Perth since 1997 but have not travelled much in the State during that time due to just being glad to be home after work trips. I’m making reasonable progress!
ANGEA is an industry association representing LNG and natural gas producers, energy buyers, suppliers and companies in APAC. Based in Singapore, it works in partnership with governments and societies across the region to deliver reliable and secure energy solutions that achieve national economic, energy security, social and environmental objectives and meet global climate goals.