Johana Dunlop: A Sustainability Advocate

Former SPE technical director for HSE and Sustainability shares her journey in the industry and her point of view on sustainability.


Johana Dunlop was the SPE Technical Director for HSE & Sustainability from 2017 to 2020. During her tenure she created a Safety Leadership Academy as well as the SPE Gaia Sustainability Program, engaging and enabling oil and gas engineers and scientists in service of sustainable development and by extension the industry and the planet. She is currently membership engagement manager at International Oil and Gas Producers Association, and also provides sustainability advisory support to both CEDEP, a global executive education club, and Carbon Connect International.

Hello, Johana, it is a pleasure to have you here. Thank you so much for accepting our invitation to have this interview. As an introduction, could you please share with us your career journey to date?

It's actually quite a long career at this point, almost 35 years, with 30 in the oil and gas industry. My career has been somewhat unconventional, as nothing could have predicted that I was going to set out on this career journey.

I didn't study petroleum engineering, or any of the other disciplines that the industry typically recruits from. I studied French literature and the classics—Greek and Roman classics—which I use almost every day. I feel that those studies helped me have a very systemic view of the world and a strong sense of how civilizations flourish and fall. I also have a master’s degree in management science and a professional qualification in risk management. It was risk management that brought me into the oil and gas industry.

I started in seismic with Schlumberger. A whole world just opened up to me; it was a total discovery. I loved this industry, right from the get-go, how international it was, the kind of people I was meeting. Everybody seemed so intense and so focused. I loved that sense of momentum and achievement and being in an industry that really matters, not to mention meeting people from all around the world.

I was kind of smitten from the beginning. Of course, Schlumberger is a very special company, particularly from a nationality diversity point of view. So that corresponded to my values as well.

I worked in risk management for 5 years, and I started to get itchy feet. I think it happens to a lot of people in their early 30s, that we start to ask ourselves professional existential questions.

I was very interested in social economic development, humanitarian aid, and how to lift people out of poverty. I kind of grew up with those conversations and they were a hobby or outside interest but becoming more compelling. I told my boss, Simon Ayat, that I thought I needed to resign to pursue my interest in aid and development. Instead, he authorized me to take a sabbatical year—this was rare at the time—and I jumped at the chance. I joined a grassroots aid agency in post-Soviet Armenia which was in quite a state of chaos at the time, coming out of the war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a huge earthquake in 1988. I had an amazing experience there as a volunteer which evolved my thinking about the role of business in society.

I came back to Schlumberger and to my great surprise found myself transferred to New York as the first employee to operationalize and scale the newly founded global community outreach program, Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development, or SEED.

That experience set me on the path to working actively on business and sustainability. It was 1998 and some investors started asking questions about environmental social governance topics. It turned out that I knew enough to support investor relationships. This started me on the journey of looking at the company from the sustainability point of view and developing the sustainability profile of the company.

Another key career turning point came in 2007, by which time I was based at the Schlumberger headquarters in Paris. My neighbor on the corridor was none other than the 2021 SPE President Kamel Ben-Naceur. He introduced me to SPE and opened a whole new world for me, and I started my journey in industry volunteering.

In 2017, I had two big events: I left Schlumberger due to the downturn and I started my own boutique consultancy to help business accelerate its uptake of sustainability practices. At the same time, as it is said, “when one door closes, another one opens,” I was nominated to the international board of SPE to serve as the health, safety, and environment (HSE) technical director. During my tenure I proposed a motion to rename the technical discipline to HSES—HSE and sustainability—which was accepted by the board.

My latest chapter has just opened with my appointment to International Oil and Gas Producers Association (IOGP) as their membership engagement manager. It's a new role that started on the first of September of this year. I feel extremely fortunate and I’m really looking forward to contributing to the execution of their ambitious new energy transition strategy and to growing their membership around the world.

Thank you for sharing your journey in the industry. I would like to continue with a social topic that relates also very closely to SPE—the Gaia program. Can you share why the Gaia program matters?

Absolutely. Have you got 3 hours?

I think Gaia was a very organic emergence in SPE as it draws on one of SPE’s many strengths, that of being multidisciplinary. SPE has accepted sustainability practitioners as members for many years, the only industry individual member association to do so, even before some leading figures contributed significantly to awareness-raising. [These leaders included] Kate Baker and Lyn Arscott, not to mention Behrooz Fattahi who formally engaged SPE to develop a sustainability strategy. All of these early efforts and their subsequent milestones culminated in the development of the Gaia program.

The members of the HSES community were struck by how absent operations and research and development were from the sustainability table. That's most of SPE’s membership! We thought that the HSES discipline could be an enabler. We would be able to support the other disciplines such as completions, drilling, reservoir engineering, and data science. We would be learning from them their operational realities and their hurdles and blockages that make it not easy to integrate sustainability practices. At the same time, we would be able to share our expertise and our networks to create a safe space for the right conversations and learning to take place and to be translated into actions.

We created the Gaia Summit, a proof-of-concept event, to test that hypothesis. SPE CEO Mark Rubin, 2019 SPE President Sami Alnuaim, who championed the sustainability theme during his presidency, and the other board members were very supportive of the initiative. We had 50 individuals who were handpicked to represent eight different stakeholder groups. We wanted to test if we could co-create a program in just 2 short days, and we did. The Gaia framework was born in that event. It needed a lot more work, about a year of filtering and testing afterwards, until we eventually landed on the current framework of nine elements: the principles, the pathways, and the priorities, each with three components.

We now have a Gaia structure in place with regional liaisons and their teams, strong engagement and support from SPE staff, a programming framework, a LinkedIn group, and an ecosystem of very knowledgeable and committed individuals doing what SPE does best—knowledge-sharing, convening, learning, and creating safe spaces in which to pursue new frontiers of practice.

A rich portfolio of programming is emerging. In this past year alone, nine events have been Gaia-enabled – seven Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) workshops, a hydrogen, and a geothermal workshop – and many active workstreams to create safe spaces to scale sustainability expertise and practices. Gaia Talks are now a regular feature in SPE sections and on SPE Live, particularly on energy system transformation, natural capital, social responsibilities, and measuring what matters.

Many SPE disciplines and technical sections have Gaia activity helping SPE members and near members accelerate their understanding of sustainable development. We also liaise closely with the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

The Gaia program has taken off. It’s been adopted as the sustainability brand for SPE and has been fully integrated and absorbed back into the SPE sustainable development technical section (SDTS). At the ATCE in September 2021, I stepped down as chair of the SDTS and Josh Etkind, a cofounder of the Gaia program, succeeded me as chair.

We have a fantastic team made up of members from all the disciplines and active in all seven regions. It all started from highly engaged and unfettered exchanges among SPE members.

Do you have some comments about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our industry, from the sustainability point of view?

Speaking about the good, there's the beneficial aspect or nature of our products. Energy fuels prosperity, it fuels lifting people out of poverty, and it fuels quality of life. I think that what we do in the oil and gas industry is extremely beneficial for humanity.

As our awareness of the negative impact has increased, the industry has been doing a lot in terms of practices, whether it's to do with human rights, local content, environmental impacts, biodiversity, or regeneration. There are organizations such as the IPIECA, the IOGP, the API, ARPEL, and others that are developers and custodians of best practices.

I think we've a lot to be proud of because our industry is one of the most advanced, if not the most advanced, in terms of sustainable development. This basically means learning to live within limits or thresholds and having strong social foundations.

In terms of the bad, we've taken way too long to implement appropriate solutions, to scale the things that we already know, and to create the space to be able to research, learn, and accelerate our learning on the topics that nobody masters inside or outside of our industry.

I think we have not been good at risk management and at integrating these issues early enough. I understand it's difficult in such a complex industry with such a complex value chain and so many fragmented parts. Everything we do is under contract. I think we underestimated the complexity of implementing solutions. I think we also underestimated the relevance of how big a role we play in society.

The ugly occurs because, sometimes, it's very difficult to admit our own problems because we live in a world where things are very quickly turned into social media content, or they become the object of a court case. Then, that frames how you look at a particular topic or how you consider what options you have available.

Some of the things that are ugly are the kind of solutions that we sometimes put in place. They are not necessarily the only available solutions. I realized that it's very difficult when you're a single company to access the full suite of possibilities. This is one of the advantages of associations—be they trade companies or professional individuals. It’s such a privilege to be an SPE member. We don't lobby and we have a freedom that many inside their companies don't have.

Lobbying can be ugly if it produces greenwashing or if it is so self-interested that it causes more damage to reputation than good.

It’s obvious that social topics are very close to your heart. What do you think diversity and inclusion and sustainability have in common at the highest level?

It's funny, if you'd asked me that question 6 months ago, I don't think I would have had a good answer. However, I had a lightbulb moment a few months ago when I had a conversation with Zahraa Alkalby, the 2020–2021 SPE D&I Standing Committee chair. After that conversation, I realized that what D&I and sustainability have in common is "inclusion." If you want to understand sustainability, you need to consider things outside oneself, "the other." We need to think about nature and about people, about our stakeholders. We need to have an inclusive mindset. Actually, nearly all the sustainable development goals are D&I dependent, and indeed one could argue that sustainability is all about diversity and inclusion.

Can you describe opportunities for SPE members who want to volunteer for the Gaia program?

Every SPE member can be part of Gaia. In fact, that’s our dream—that every member of the industry becomes very comfortable with knowledge underpinning sustainable development, to be conversant, and to be able to translate that understanding into actions. SPE members can be involved, take initiative, propose speakers, volunteer as speakers, and support a myriad events through the SPE sections and chapters.

SPE members can join the SDTS. This section holds the Gaia program. They can join the Gaia community on LinkedIn. We share content there almost every day. They can join the program through the SPE sections, chapters, technical sections, and standing committees as well as key events such as conferences, workshops, summits, and forums. Our next Gaia Summit will be in Oman next year.