The jestful working title for this story, “Interview With Evil Incarnate”, hints at the reflexiveness with which those who consider themselves environmentalists respond when faced with issues, events, and people they don’t like. Oil and gas and coal, bad. Mining, bad. Keystone XL, bad. Of course, all of these things have hugely negative impacts on the environment, none of which are easily mediated. But the flip side is that the issue is never simply black and white, whether you’re talking about tar sands or fracking. Additionally, our entire affluent western recreational lifestyle depends on a continuing flow of materials that are extracted from the ground at great cost to air, water, and soil. Hypocrisy runs rampant.
A few weeks ago, I sat down to have a conversation with a friend of mine who’s given more thought to the issues of energy and the environment than the vast majority of putative enviros. He is both an oil industry geologist and a member of the fun hog tribe, and his perspective is nuanced and considered and well worth reading. To speak freely, he asked that we not identify him or the company he works for.
What do you do for a living?
I am an exploration geophysicist. Basically, it is physics applied to the earth to search for hydrocarbons. I studied geology and physics as an undergrad, and geophysics and geomechanics in graduate school.
In the grand scheme of things, there aren’t that many people on the planet that do what I do…so I get used to explaining it to people, it usually elicits a lot of strange looks. A majority of what I do is seismic exploration to search for oil and natural gas. It can include other things, but basically that’s what we do. If you see a rig somewhere drilling odds are a geophysicist was working out there first.
So you drive a big SUV and don’t care anything about the planet, right?
Totally. No, I actually take a good portion out of my day avoiding those things on the way to work. Thank god for bike trails.
We own one car between my wife and me and it gets maybe 6,000 miles a year put on it. I take public transit, bike to work, or walk. It’s so much easier than fighting traffic – and let’s face it, when you make a living trying to find the shit, you realize how scary the lengths we go to find it actually are.
That’s certainly one of the stigmas that come with working in the industry though: that you don’t care about the environment if you work for an oil company. Quite the contrary actually – I have an abiding love of the outdoors. I climb, ski, hike, and get away from the city whenever possible. My vote goes for sustainable energy policy, conservation, and a move away from a hydrocarbon intensive energy supply (this would be wind, solar, geothermal, not ethanol or food-based fuels). This seems counterintuitive, but more on that later.
As a matter of fact, a lot of geo-scientists who work in oil and gas started there because of their love of the outdoors. Believe it or not, if you love rocks, you don’t have a lot of job options that will allow you to pay off your student loans outside of the resource industries (mining or oil and gas).
But I understand where it comes from; the industry’s track record is pretty horrible in a lot of respects. One of the main reasons I started this type of work is because change comes from within, not from outside. And there is lots of room for improvement.
You’re a pretty liberal young guy, then. Do people ever give you a hard time about your field of work? What do you tell them?
It’s actually not as common as you would think, but I may be sheltered as I live in a city that is dominated by oil and gas workers. In school it was pretty common to be given a stern lecture by someone claiming to be an environmentalist about the evils of oil and gas. Asking how I could work for that industry and destroy the planet, etc. That conversation, however, didn’t stop them from driving away from our house in an old Subaru (with no catalytic converter) after our conversation, or owning products that contain petroleum-based components. That’s just the world that we were born into: one that is very reliant on oil and gas not just for transportation but also for consumer products.
My response to people actually came from a good friend of mine. It’s usually a variation of “Wouldn’t you rather have someone who gives a shit about the environment working for an oil company than someone who didn’t?” It usually makes the conversation much more civil.
Whenever anyone takes umbrage with my profession, I tend to ask them how much they know about global energy supply. People with strong opinions are often very unaware about the scale of the world’s dependence on carbon-based fuels (oil, gas, coal). I support sustainable energy subsidies and research because I know that even if we saw a massive shift in energy policy we would not be able to wean ourselves off of carbon-based fuel in our lifetimes, in any realistic scenario. The sooner we start, the better, but once you start digging into the numbers and size of how much energy we use it gets a lot scarier, that’s ignoring the fact that most people don’t want to do the hard science involved to find or improve an alternative energy. It’s a much bigger discussion, but here is some food for thought:
There is a large movement now for local farming and “knowing your farmer.” Well, let’s flip that a little. Do you know your energy supply? When you flip on a light that is coming from a power line, what powers your local supply? Is it coal, natural gas, or nuclear? Take that a bit further: where did that coal, natural gas, or uranium come from? How much of that fuel does your one local power plant go through in a day? Also, where does your gasoline come from? Which refinery? Where was the crude oil produced? How many barrels of oil does that refinery go through in a year? I will guarantee that almost no one knows the answer to those questions. I had a hell of a time tracking down mine, and I am a lot more informed than most people. That exercise should give you an idea of the scale of energy demand in your community that you can relate to. Then go read the International Energy Agency report on global use and buckle up. It’s a real eye-opener. Especially when you consider the rise of developing countries and their expected future energy demands (i.e. China and India).
At this point most people get bored and leave me alone. I sometimes think that my job makes me a human lightning rod for people’s opinions. A face to an industry that is usually not that visible, which sort of sucks.
What kind of bike do you ride?
I bought an old fixed gear KHS from a bike courier. Where I live is pretty flat, and I ride a lot in traffic that contains a lot of large trucks, fixed gear gives me a lot of speed control, which I like. I love riding into work – it gives you a lot of perspective.
Like seeing all of those lifted pick-ups with truck nuts on them. If you don’t know what they are I suggest you do an internet search for them. It’s god’s gift to hyperbole.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was one day when I was riding behind an old VW with an Earth First bumper sticker on it. No catalytic converter, burning shit-tons of oil, and leaking antifreeze. Earth First indeed, sir.
What’s your take on all the protests and petitions against the Keystone Pipeline?
I understand the frustration and protests. But I have to say that I don’t understand the ultimate goal of it. If people think that stopping Keystone XL will stop oil sands development they are not only sorely mistaken, but also really delusional. I understand wanting to change the pipeline layout due to the Ogallala Aquifer, but this is getting dragged into a larger debate about the oil sands and climate change in general, which is a good thing. However, this gets back to my comments earlier about a general lack of knowledge about the oil and gas industry.
Think about this, the oil you are trying to stop from coming to the USA is literally already coming in on a railroad track just over the horizon. The USA is the largest buyer of Canadian crude, hands down. That is because of demand for the product: Demand is high enough that the price of oil allows oil sands crude production to be profitable. If you decrease demand and oil falls below $40 a barrel then oil sands development will slow significantly. That, however, is only possible if oil demand slows globally, which is not a realistic prospect in the near term.
The future of Canadian oil production is the oil sands, and if the U.S. does not take it then China will. If you think that is not true, then start looking to recent headlines. Cenovus, a large oil sands operator, shipped the first oil sands crude to China via Vancouver. Public consultation has already started for the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would take Alberta oil sands crude to Asia in the next decade. On top of that, China invests heavily in Canadian oil and gas to lock up supply because they know that they are going to need it in the future, and Canada is a politically stable supplier. The USA still imports oil from all over the world, produced in areas with lax environmental control and oversight, and then shipped across large distances (on takers that usually burn low quality diesel) to U.S. markets.
I read a lot of articles from blogs and environmental conservation agencies about the Keystone pipeline and the oil sands in general. I agree with a good majority of what they have to say in terms of better environmental regulation and control, independent monitoring, and reclamation science research. However, outside of broad bullet points outlining what is needed, I don’t see people lining up to do the work. It is one thing to stand on a picket line saying that the oil sands need to be developed responsibly, but another thing entirely to dedicate your life to the painstaking science and politics to enact that change. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree I was one of 12 graduates in geology. The chemistry department had six. The business school had over 2,000 graduates. Graduate school, which is a requirement to take on the scientific work needed, has even fewer graduates capable of doing the job. Labor shortages in the industry are staggering. In my eyes there is plenty of room to make a difference – people just don’t want to.
The solution is simple in the economy that we in North America live in. If you want to stop the world’s addiction to carbon-based fuels, we need a sustainable energy resource that can compete on a cost basis. Make it cheaper than oil, gas, and coal and you have won. The sentence is simple, but the actual work involved is mind-bending in its difficulty.
The problem is that environmental activists outnumber the scientists doing this work to a large degree. At this rate we will be living in a carbon-based fuel world for a very long time.
Can you explain the meaning of the saying “Let ’em freeze in the dark”?
For a while there were bumper stickers floating around that read “Ban mining, let the bastards freeze in the dark.” It was usually taken as a joke along the lines of the “nuke the whales” bumper sticker. It does, however, provide a good analogy of how those on the right view environmentalists. I loved it; it was like FOX News, so out there that it was amazing that people took it seriously. But people did (and do).
I don’t think most people honestly want mining or oil and gas exploration to stop outright, although at some point in the distant future it will have to. All natural resources are finite at some scale. However, when you read some people’s views it comes across that way. Think about that, though, what would happen if we could not mine for raw ore, rare earth metals, or petroleum products. Modern society as we know it would stop progressing. I think the bumper sticker was getting at the point that mining is so essential to our culture that the alternative is no shelter and no heat. “Nuke the Whales,” though? That’s just hilarious.
Why did you choose to work in the oil industry? Do you feel like you can do more good from within the industry?
To take the short answer to your question, yes. Part of it was the hope to make a difference in the industry by exploring for oil and gas while caring about the environment. The other part is that I believe that the most meaningful changes come from understanding the issues, and making a difference from within an organization. What has Greenpeace really accomplished in a policy sense in the last 20 years? They get plenty of publicity, but they are relegated as a fringe group.
To change the system, unfortunately, you have to be a part of it.
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
Would the Sierra Club consider me one? Hell, no. Would the American Petroleum Institute? Yes. Would I? Probably.
I am comfortable with that middle ground, I consider myself to be a realistic environmentalist, if that makes sense. Hopefully some of what I have written here gives a bit of the perspective that I have. It’s probably not perfect, but then again, what is?
There definitely needs to be a line drawn between petroleum, specifically crude oil, and coal. Petroleum and petroleum derivatives are used for gasoline (unleaded, diesel, oils, etc) and a plethora of other products, specifically plastics of almost all kinds. Skis, CDs, cellphones, computers, ballpoint pens, and the lists go on. It is quite literally everywhere.
Coal, on the other hand, is mainly used to power industrial power plants, and higher quality coals are used in industrial steel production. Coal is used to power cities, while petroleum powers your car – this is obviously in a broad sense. If we are talking greenhouse gas emissions and scale, coal is by far more of a danger. A recent paper from the University of British Columbia talks about this topic in detail.
I don’t think that a lot of people get that. The buildings we inhabit, how energy efficient they are, and how much energy we use at home and in offices/industrial buildings is FAR more important in terms of the environment.
I am not saying that driving a 12 mpg Hummer is sound environmental consciousness. But driving a Prius, buying Patagonia products, and owning a 4,000-square-foot home is doing far more damage to the planet. That point seems to be lost on most people.