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DG #50 preview: The numbers behind Big Oil

The Tarim oil field in China

The 50th issue of Delayed Gratification features a series of infographics by co-editor Marcus Webb and art director Christian Tate which highlight the unfathomable profitability of the major oil companies and the increasing need for sustainable alternatives. Inga Marsden asks Marcus about his experience of creating these infographics

Inga Marsden: Which news story inspired you to make these infographics on the oil industry?
Marcus Webb: At the start of the year there was a slow drip of news stories about oil companies making obscene profits; BP’s annual profits more than doubled to $28 billion. When it was announced that Saudi Aramco had reportedly the biggest profits for any company in corporate history, $161 billion over 2022, we knew that the oil industry was worth investigating in an infographics explainer.

IM: What is an infographics explainer?
MW: It’s when we explain a big news story through a series of infographics. This approach makes information really digestible, and our art director, Christian Tate – who worked with me on these oil infographics – is always able to find a way to make things visually compelling.

IM: Why did you decide to use infographics rather than a written-through article on this topic?
MW: We looked at some different ways of covering it, questioning whether we should do it as a reportage piece or a photo feature. I’m not sure how many people would actually read a 6,000-word story on the oil industry – I’m not sure I would, to be honest! – but infographics offer a really accessible way of presenting the information and telling the story. Also, the numbers were so staggering we felt that it was probably one to approach with infographics. One other thing – in our editorial meetings it was obvious that none of us knew a great deal about the oil industry other than it was really, really important. So we thought it was worth diving into, conducting a huge amount of research, so we could answer some of the questions we had about Big Oil.

IM: What do the infographics tell us about the oil industry?
MW: They tell us just how baked into every part of our life oil is. When we examined what petrochemicals are used for, we found they are in everything from medicine to tires to beauty products, a big list that just keeps growing. Petrochemicals are also the sector of the oil industry where demand is growing at the fastest rate and it is predicted to continue growing. We all know the importance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, but it’s not just a case of switching out petrol for something else. There’s a lot more to it than that, which I didn’t realise until we started looking at the alternatives.

IM: What does the future of the oil industry look like?
MW: I’m slightly pessimistic because I don’t think anything’s going to change any time soon. I think there will be some important changes such as the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, which might have an impact on the back-end of petrol usage, but it’s still a long way off and oil companies will continue to generate huge amounts of money. But that being said, there’s some game-changing technology out there and Big Oil companies have the funds to invest in it. This industry certainly does some damage but, if it is carefully managed, there are causes for optimism.

You can read the full story in issue 50 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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