When the BCGA Annual Conference was held yesterday without Chief Executive Doug Thornton, it was very much a case of ‘the show must go on’.

But it wasn’t just about the absence of the event’s talismanic frontman and organiser, it was about a backdrop of change and uncertainty. Indeed, outgoing BCGA President Richard Gearing reflected on the ‘unprecedented change’ in the industry during his two-year tenure.

For the event, the show did of course go on. But may we find ourselves having to say the same of the region’s industry in the years ahead?

Much talk over the last couple of days seemed to focus on three areas: oil and steel, the impact of both on the gases industry, and the so-called ‘Brexit’.

Most would agree upon the effects of collapse in oil prices over the last 18 months as it has fallen from around $140 per barrel to as low as $30 per barrel. Similarly, many would acknowledge that the UK steel sector remains on a knife-edge and may be yet to reach its nadir; the fate of Tata Steel’s UK operations is still yet to be decided, with the inherent challenges the industry faces very much common knowledge.

But the Brexit is a very different story.

There seems to have been a round split, a 50:50 divide. Certainly from those I have spoken with, there have been many who cannot fathom the idea of the UK leaving the EU or even that this debate has accelerated to a referendum - it seems completely unthinkable. Yet an equal number freely exercise their discontent at superfluous levels of legislation, and a clear disparity in the economic performance of member states. Few are unmoved by the subject.

Opinion is divided, though it might be argued that a perceived groundswell of views does not always transpire in a voter’s actual actions; when we get into those voting booths, often a fear of change overcomes us and we vote contrary to our earlier attitudes. So we can draw few conclusions from the vibes in this April audience, ahead of a referendum in late June.

Europe manufacturing factory

But what might any Brexit mean for the gases industry? The answer to this question, if you can actually find one, is just as inconclusive. The fact is, no-one seems to know.

Some have suggested it will create years of extra red tape for UK businesses operating in Europe. Others believe we might just begin to unravel that red tape in the years ahead, only for a change of heart and a further referendum to decide whether to jump back in. For many, there may be no difference at all; the show will go on, after all. There is certainly a shared view that any Brexit would create short-term pandemonium economically.

Takeaways from yesterday’s conference suggested there may be legislative impact across a number of areas for the gases business. There’s also a viewpoint that while the safe transport of dangerous goods (and therefore gases) is governed mostly on a UN level and irrespective of the UK’s position within the EU, life might be a little easier to maintain the status quo.

But behind all talk of the Brexit and its impact is a cloud of uncertainty. Put simply, no-one really seems to know how the referendum might pan out or what impact any exit vote may have on the industry. What we do know is, it’s another step into the unknown when the industry is already reeling from unforeseen challenges that have arisen in oil, LNG, steel and China in recent years.