Based in Aberdeen since the mid-1960s, when exploration started in earnest, bp has played an instrumental role in driving the North Sea economic engine. In 2018 alone, the company created £10.3 billion gross value-added contribution to the UK’s gross domestic product figures and supported 123,120 jobs across the UK.
But like any business that has called somewhere home for more than half a century, it’s not just the headline figures that count, but the broader social, cultural, technological and commercial ripples across Scotland that make this long-standing relationship so special.
Here are just three ways in which bp’s broader contribution is helping to support the communities and businesses of today and tomorrow.
From underwater autonomous robots to 3D printing, technology is transforming the entire oil and gas industry. And bp is right at the centre, thanks to its three-year, £400,000 support for the TechX Pioneers accelerator programme, run by the Aberdeen-based Oil and Gas Technology Centre.
“We spend a lot of time scanning the external landscape for new investment opportunities, but the price to participate is going up,” says David Byard, part of bp’s central technology business development team. “Accelerator programmes like TechX allow us to get involved much earlier in the process.”
Now in its third year, TechX is growing in popularity, with its latest call receiving around 200 applications from more than 35 countries. Only about 10 ‘pioneers’ make the final cut, giving them access to up to £100,000 in seed funding and a 10-week intensive programme that provides mentoring and unparalleled access to the market.
David Byard, central technology business development team, bp
For some that means the chance to demonstrate their technology at scale within bp. “Historically, the UK has been very good at investing in early ideas,” says Byard, “but it has struggled to scale up – you can see that in the imbalance between research and demonstration funding. Our proof-of-concept trials are just as valuable to a start-up as the initial funding.”
One early pioneer seeing that benefit is RAB-Microfluidics. Borne out of decade-long research at the University of Aberdeen, the company’s ‘lab on a chip’ can analyse oil samples in real time in order to detect early signs of equipment failure. bp was so impressed with the idea that it awarded RAB-Microfluidics the bp Technology Prize, which comes with an additional £60,000 in funding and dedicated access to the company’s facilities and expertise.
“We have a lot of assets in remote areas, so this kind of preventative maintenance could fundamentally change how we work,” says Byard.
bp’s involvement is also changing the way in which people inside the company think, says regional technology manager Peter Faulkner: “We bring the TechX pioneers into our offices in Aberdeen to talk to some of our experts and their enthusiasm is infectious, particularly among our younger recruits who are keen to bring new technology into the workplace.”
When oil prices collapsed in 2014, it would have been easy for bp to pull out of its support for the oil and gas technical apprenticeship programme (OGTAP), run by OPITO. Indeed, other companies did.
“There were some difficult days,” says Greg Nicolson, regional learning advisor, “but our mantra is ‘invest for the future’ and while others decided not to commit to their usual apprenticeship numbers we stuck to our guns. I think that sent a good message to the region.”
bp has supported OGTAP since 2002, providing more than 200 apprentices with sponsorship and invaluable offshore experience. While there’s no guarantee of a job at the end, some have risen through the bp ranks to become offshore installation managers as far afield as Azerbaijan.
Colin Black, chairman, NASA in Aberdeen
The apprenticeship programme is just one of a host of ways in which bp North Sea helps young people explore and develop science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. Others include support for Career Ready, giving students access to mentoring and four-week internships, and NASA in Aberdeen, a week-long programme aimed at inspiring the next generation of engineers.
“In 2019, we had a robotics engineer come over to talk about his team’s work as well as the North Sea oil industry,” says NASA in Aberdeen chairman Colin Black. “Most pupils have never considered that there could be NASA robots working in Aberdeen. That leaves a lasting inspirational legacy.”
For some, like bp reservoir engineer Greg Stewart, this kind of early exposure can transform a career path. Although interested in maths, it wasn’t until Stewart’s school entered Techfest’s STEM in the Pipeline competition in 2007 that he considered a career in oil and gas.
“My parents weren’t in the business and I was inclined to just do a maths degree and go into something like finance,” he explains. But as he got to meet engineers and geologists and try out the technology over the course of the 12-week development project something clicked and he chose chemical engineering instead.
Greg Stewart, reservoir engineer, bp
Now, Stewart is helping to make those connections for other youngsters taking part in the same programme. “It’s all about encouraging bright young people to be aware of the options to use their maths and science in the workplace,” he says. “It’s also nice to give something back to the community.”
Someone else giving back is petroleum engineer Lindsey Gordon, one of three female employees who spoke at the 2019 Women in Engineering conference, hosted at bp’s North Sea headquarters and designed to help 45 female secondary school students learn more about engineering careers.
“These girls are already interested in STEM subjects, but I wanted to get across just how exciting engineering is, how it matters in every aspect of life,” Gordon says.
“Some were concerned that the industry is looking for gender balance just for the sake of it, but in my experience it’s about the value you bring, not who you are. Besides, I think a healthy company needs diversity of thought and it’s good to be that different voice in the room.”
For as long as bp has operated in the North Sea, it has been involved in the arts, working with some of the UK’s biggest cultural institutions to bring art to communities around the country. And Scotland is no different.
Since 2005, for example, its annual bp Big Screens programme has helped Aberdeen audiences enjoy free performances of world-class opera, via a live relay from the Royal Opera House in London. “The bp Big Screens have grown every year,” says Des Violaris, bp’s UK arts and culture and Paralympics director. “In 2019, around 5,000 people came to Duthie Park to watch a performance of Carmen.”
bp has gone one step further with the National Portrait Gallery, helping the London-based institution take the bp Portrait Award exhibition out on the road. Scotland is always on the tour schedule, alternating historically between the Aberdeen Art Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. However, for the past four years, Edinburgh has played sole host to an annual average of 130,000 visitors while the Aberdeen Art Gallery has undergone major redevelopment.
Des Violaris, director, UK arts and culture and Paralympics, bp
That work got a £1 million boost from bp in June 2019, helping to create a new second-floor space called the bp Galleries that will host three special exhibitions every year, as well as the bp Portrait Award. “We’re excited about the exhibition’s return,” says Wendy Slimane, a member of bp North Sea’s community affairs team. “It’s always popular with the public and our employees.”
But it’s not just about the big eye-catching national exhibitions. bp also believes in the value of supporting homegrown artistic talent. As well as sponsoring the prestigious Gray’s School of Art degree show for the past 16 years, the company has announced a new prize for local artists, with winners also set to see their work on display in the bp Galleries.
“Access to arts and culture helps to build a more inspired and creative society,” says Violaris. “We know from the feedback that we get that it makes a real difference to people’s lives.”