Nathan Barrett, Director of Engineering at BP, reflects on the past, present and future challenges of a career at the cutting edge of the oil and gas sector
Having worked as an engineer for the past 24 years, I find it very hard to imagine doing anything else. I studied Chemical Engineering at university, but my interest in the field dates back to my school days. I was visiting a careers fair when I came across a description of a chemical engineer. I recall it reading: “someone who designs, builds, operates and maintains chemical plants” and thinking it sounded interesting. The rest is history.
I’ve been at bp for 24 years and have worked on some of the industry’s most interesting, varied and ambitious projects; projects that have been completed in remarkable timeframes, challenging locations and to great scale.
In my role today – as one of bp’s directors of engineering – I work with bp’s engineering teams to tackle an array of technical problems. I work on design through to delivery on many new projects – from gas reserves off the coast of Mauritania, to floating production facilities in the North Sea.
As engineers, it’s important that we encourage others and try to inspire them
For readers of the Engineer, I am sharing my career observations, lessons that I’ve learnt and thoughts on what’s next for the industry.
A global experience
I’ve been lucky to work in several countries including Azerbaijan, Singapore, Korea and parts of Africa. I’ve picked up a few languages along the way (Russian, German and some Korean), although I wouldn’t say that I’ve progressed past the ‘enthusiastic amateur’ phase!
During my university placement year, my eyes were opened to the global scale and breadth that a career in engineering offers. I worked on the software and design of a pioneering 370km multiphase pipeline. To my amazement the pipeline (Nam Con Son Pipeline) ended up getting built in Vietnam, becoming (at the time) the longest multiphase line in the world.
A full time job at bp followed my degree and I was posted to Wytch Farm, an oilfield hidden in the south of England. My next role took me to Aberdeen, Scotland, on a ground-breaking enhanced oil recovery project, before heading to Azerbaijan to help build one of the world’s largest oil and gas terminals at Sangachal. I then led the engineering build of the Shah Deniz gas platform, which was built in parts in the Far East and floated through the Volga canal.
Collectively, these experiences helped me on what is my proudest and most high-profile project to date – ‘Quad 204’.
I was an engineering manager on ‘Quad 204’ – a multi-partner project to the west of the Shetland Islands, in the North Atlantic Sea. As part of this we designed the Glen Lyon FPSO, a 270 meter long by 52 meter wide vessel that dwarfs many of the large vessels you’d see at sea, including the British Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers! The huge hull and 30,000 tonne topsides were moored in place and designed to withstand waves over 35m high – roughly comparable with a 10 storey building.
I was in charge of engineering on the project; supporting the team to achieve challenging requirements, making sure the design was safe and met the high environmental standards.
It was taxing, but certainly worth it. One of my proudest moments was in 2015 when the Glen Lyon was almost ready for installation. We took our engineering leaders to Norway for a rare visit to the vessel. It was incredible, seeing something of that scale and complexity come together. We followed it up by taking 20 up-and-coming engineers to see the project – the look of awe on their faces was amazing. We still use it as a key case-study in bp engineering training today and even have a replica scale model in our London headquarters.
I think the success of the project is down to the energy of our team. We were not afraid to try new things, testing out different approaches and if we failed, we reinvented and moved on. We challenged ourselves to think outside the box and manage difficult decisions with an open mind.
Approaching engineering with ambition
To achieve projects like this, at scale and with great pace, you must be ambitious. It’s the opportunities like Quad 204 that have kept me at bp. Now, 24 years on, there are still opportunities that I want to pursue. When I look at our teams across the world, they are full of people with a range of skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s clear to me that good people and great engineers are attracted to ambitious projects.
At bp we are lucky to have a culture comprised of diverse and innovative employees. This will be even more critical going forward. As we pivot from an international oil company, focused on producing resources, to an integrated energy company, focused on delivering solutions to our customers, we need people who are open to new ways of thinking. We need engineers with vision and a can-do attitude.
Reflecting on my career, it becomes clear how much things have already changed. Within the engineering space, I have seen bp bring new technologies and disruption to the industry. As a company we’re committed to net zero by 2050 or sooner and, more broadly, reimagining energy for people and our planet. It’s exciting to be a part of this, working as a team to find answers to engineering problems that must be solved.
Creating a team and fostering a culture
Working in a global role, I’ve learnt a lot about communication, culture and respect. When it comes to assembling an engineering team, I believe it’s crucial to respect your project location, be humble, and listen before proposing solutions to problems.
Following the Quad 204 project, I became engineering director for onshore projects globally. I was tasked with overseeing engineering delivery and team development around the world. I noticed that our biggest strength was the locality of our teams, they were a combination of local engineers and specialists from across the globe.
In my current role, as the engineering director for West Africa, we are delivering the ambitious Tortue project across the Mauritania and Senegal maritime border. We are aiming to deliver clean gas, LNG exports, and pave the way for future electrification. We are taking the same approach to the project as we did in Azerbaijan, Trinidad & Tobago, Angola and Indonesia, using a combination of specialists, graduates and local engineers.
As a global business, we have a responsibility to share our knowledge with local teams. We work to give the local teams ownership once the project is off the ground and are focused on building our projects in a sustainable way. My experience has taught me that teams need to be diverse when working in a global organisation – it is amazing what diverse thinking can achieve.
As we look ahead
I have often felt that engineering struggles with its image. But, as engineers, it’s important that we encourage others and try to inspire them. I visit schools and engage with friends and family to help them understand how central engineering is to the energy industry and, more broadly, their lives. My work has offered up so many opportunities and I’ve been lucky enough to have an interesting, varied and global career.
As bp enters a new chapter focused on reimagining energy, I am excited to see what innovative and ambitious projects are next.