Looking west along the Houston Ship Channel near Galena Park with the city of Houston beyond. US Army Corps of Engineers via Wikimedia Commons

Covering Climate NowThis story originally appeared in The Guardian and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

What do you do when your family has deep ties to the oil and gas industry, yet all agree that burning fossil fuels is accelerating the climate crisis?

For one family, the fossil fuel industry’s role in stoking the climate emergency is more than just a dinner table debate. It’s their legacy. Andy and Wendy met in the 70s while working as engineers for Exxon. They spent decades working in oil and gas while raising their children.

Now retired, Andy and Wendy drove from their home in Washington state to spend the holidays with their son, James, and their daughter, Liz, who has two young sons with her husband, Dara. The family sat down with the Guardian the day before Thanksgiving to discuss how the three generations view the climate crisis and how the family reckons with their fossil fuel connection.

Participants include:

  • Andy, 65, retired engineer
  • Wendy, 62, retired engineer
  • Liz, 33, environmental safety manager
  • Dara, 35, Liz’s husband and engineer
  • James, 31, IT consultant

Andy and Wendy, you met while working at Mobil?

Andy: In those days, we were doing synthetic fuels. We were trying to address the energy crisis by making new kinds of fuels. And Wendy and I met in that group. After the merger with Exxon, they moved us from New Jersey down to Texas, there was a big group of us that made that move. That forms certain bonds.

In that group, was global warming even part of the conversation?

Wendy: We talked more about air quality and what was happening from burning fossil fuels. There’s so much pollution in Houston that sometimes the kids’ sports were canceled because of air quality. So we talked more about the downside of fossil fuels around air quality than global warming.

We bought a Prius in 2004, right when Priuses came out, and drove it to Exxon every day. There was this whole conversation with all of our co-workers about driving a Prius.

Andy: Colleagues were giving me the eyeball. They just didn’t understand why anyone would ever do such a thing.

Liz and James, do you remember when you first became aware of what your parents did for work?

Liz: In the 90s there were a lot of Bring Your Kids to Work days. And so I used to go with my dad into work when he worked at Mobil. But it wasn’t until high school that I really understood what the oil and gas industry is and how it impacts people.

James: For me, it was a byproduct of us moving around. Because of the merger with Exxon Mobil, we relocated a couple times so people would ask me, oh, are your parents in the military? And I had to say, no, they’re oil and gas.

Did you guys feel uncomfortable when you were younger telling people your parents worked in fossil fuels?

Liz: I don’t remember feeling a sense of shame then. But I felt a very strong pull when I was in college to go into a career where I could reverse the effects of climate change. I studied environmental science at the University of Washington. And it was also in college that I learned about how long Exxon had known about climate change and had covered it up. I felt strongly that I don’t want to purchase Exxon gas.

James: I was in high school at the time of the BP spill, the Deepwater Horizon, and so being in Bellingham, which is such a liberal area, obviously a lot of my peers were very upset about it. I was upset about it. But at the same time, my mom was working for BP.

[To Wendy] You were wanting to defend your company. And so there were a lot of words said: this could have happened to anyone, there was a significant amount of risk getting taken in the Gulf at the time, a lot of companies were cutting corners. But, you know, you still have to hold people responsible for the choices that they make.

Liz: I was deeply disturbed by the incident, more so than maybe anyone else in the family. What really aggrieved me was the fact that people are still continuing to fill up their cars with gas every day. And maybe they’re boycotting BP gas, but by continuing to consume, people are contributing to the problem. And so there’s this awful hypocrisy in that after each of these incidents. We can all play the blame game and yet there hasn’t been any shift away from consuming gasoline and diesel.

Andy: I wouldn’t say there’s not been any shift.

Liz: Maybe. Slow and gradual.

Andy: Right, right not fast enough for where we want.

Wendy, you worked for BP when that spill happened. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Wendy: It really affected me. The environmental part, of course, but the safety part in terms of the loss of life of colleagues. I mean, I started tearing up hearing the kids talking about it right now.

It was a total moral reckoning. It became apparent that the fossil fuel industry is wrong on so many levels. I realized I lost my way. I started in synthetic fuels and the path led to conventional oil and gas.

But at that point, I was so far along in the industry. I had two kids in college, so I asked myself ‘what can I do within this industry to do something impactful and valuable?’ That’s why I accepted a safety project in Alaska.

What are the family conversations about fossil fuels like at the dinner table?

Dara: What I like about the conversations that we have with Andy and Wendy: I think we hold them accountable. Your generation, you guys got us in this mess and they admit that. I mean, I don’t think you guys disagree.

Liz: I remember the first time that I picked my own electricity provider and there was a 100% renewable option and I was so excited about it. The first thing I did was call my dad and say, Dad, tell me you’re purchasing 100% renewable power. Then a year later, we started with a garden and I bought a big composting bin for the back yard. And calling Dad, hey Dad, you guys are composting, right?

Liz, it’s hard to imagine you came to this career in environmental protection accidentally, that it’s unconnected from your parents’ career choices.

Liz: Going into college, I just knew I wanted to do the opposite [of my parents]. I wanted to do everything that I could to deter climate change. And I spent the first 11 years of my career working in the oil and gas industry and in the environment, health and safety field, and there’s a lot of opportunities to talk about sustainability within that framework.

But my personal experience is, you can be as loud as you want but unless you have buy-in from the top, it’s not going to happen. There are plenty of energy companies out there who see environmental social governance reporting as the latest way to pacify shareholders without driving real change.

Andy and Wendy, what comes up hearing Liz say that she wanted to do the opposite of what you had done, career-wise?

Andy: Liz, we can feel her passion and she does push us. And that’s a positive influence. We’re feeling the push. That’s our way of saying we’re not stuck in the blame game. That’s very complicated. But no matter what, that’s all in the past.

Liz and Dara, your kids are three and five. How has the arrival of this newest generation changed things?

Wendy: When we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, we’re having stuffed acorn squash, the vegan version. The climate for us is a big part of our plant-based eating. So, you know, we’ll have that conversation with the boys around why there’s not a turkey on the table.

Liz: The previous generation, the way people talked about race was in coded and polite ways. And now we talk openly about racism and Black Lives Matter. It’s the same thing to me with climate change. We’re not beating around the bush. We have books for our kids about climate change. And when we tell them bedtime stories, it’s about climate change. We want them to understand it and name it and talk to their friends about it.

Dara: I think Liz and I disagree a little bit. When I do night-time stories about climate change with the five-year-old, it opens up a can of worms of questions on why did this happen? Who did it? I don’t know if it’s necessarily healthy for him to know all of that information. And sometimes I don’t even have the answers.

Emma Pattee is a writer, climate journalist and native Oregonian. She writes about eco-distress, climate reality, and West Coast climate news for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others.