New Internationalist

A ‘blue Skies’ Romance

Issue 335

OIL / CORPORATE CULTURE

A 'blue skies' romance

He was a comfortable insider - in love with the glamour and
the thrill of the chase. Now he's a thorn in the side of the oil
business. Jeremy Leggett explains his disenchantment.

--Photo caption--
A curious affair: penguins at Terre Adelie in the Antarctic watch a scientist releasing a meteorological balloon to measure ozone depletion of the atmosphere.
The Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, is an élite training house for oil and mining companies. There, within its Victorian corridors in Kensington, for more than a decade, I taught the ways and culture of the hunt for oil. I helped to turn out petroleum geologists and petroleum engineers in their hundreds. Along the way, I supplemented my income by consulting for the companies whose future servants I was helping to train. One summer I actually worked for an oil company. I was a suit-and-tie commuter in Tokyo, the sole foreigner in a skyscraper owned by Japex, the Japan Petroleum Exploration Company. The only thing I was excused from was daily performance of the company exercises.

In truth, I had discovered a great romance. Looking back, I have a fancy now that it stemmed from something primeval. I remember the hunter’s thrill I felt in Baluchistan, watching smears of oil seeping from the ground. I felt the same thing in that Tokyo office, looking at a possible trap on a seismic record or a satellite image. Then there were the hunter’s weapons. The ships and trucks pumping seismic energy into the ground, building pictures of the hidden subsurface. The drill rigs and downhole instrument packages probing for the quarry. On top of that, the pipelines and the supertankers carrying the object of the hunt to market – via oil refineries, those most complex meccano sets – where finally, of course, the prize could be burned: in engines, all kinds of fascinating engines.

Although my teaching and consultancy had much to do with oil, my research was in what academics tend to refer to as ‘blue skies’: knowledge which has no obvious immediate commercial relevance. My subject was the geological history of oceans. How I loved that too. In the modern oceans, I studied the unfolding history of the planet from sediment cores drilled under as much as five kilometres of water, recording in their thin layers stories of climate and life on a dynamic Earth over hundreds of millions of years. I studied the deposits of ancient oceans, forced from their deep-water origins in mountainous areas marking where continents once collided. My research took me on scientific cruise ships in the Pacific and to the mountain belts of Europe, Japan and Pakistan. I worked in particular with Japanese and French scientists, learning to appreciate such novelties as sashimi and Bordeaux. I was one happy camper.

But during the mid-1980s, I began to notice a series of worrying papers and articles appearing in the scientific journals about the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Translating the carefully coded language I was reading, it seemed that atmospheric physicists were becoming concerned that burning so much coal, oil and gas – the carbon or fossil fuels – risked turning up the planetary thermostat too high, destabilizing global climate. I knew a thing or two about climate – from the bottom up, as it were – having studied so many stories of the past in the oceanic record. I knew how slowly the natural climatic rhythms of the planet worked. Now the people looking at climate from the top down were saying there was a danger of changes of a rapidity never before seen. I felt my own concern rising by the month.

finally, of course, the prize could be burned: in engines, all kinds of fascinating engines

The year that broke the mould was 1988. News about global warming that summer became impossible to ignore. I felt my sense of mission, future and professional identity eroding with every new report I read. At first, I tried to reconcile the information with what I saw as my life’s calling. I petitioned my colleagues in the Royal School of Mines to let me start giving a few environmental science lectures. The students, I argued, should be aware of what was brewing in the atmospheric sciences. Quite apart from the question of whether or not it might be a good idea to give them an all-round education, this environmentalism business might hold implications for their job prospects. My colleagues reluctantly agreed, but immediately took to referring to the lectures as Dr Leggett’s liberal-studies classes.

The following year, the growing fault lines in my sense of professional identity reached failure point. One day early in 1989, I stood in front of a class of 40 undergraduates giving a lecture on an oil field in California. I had an interesting hunter’s tale to tell that morning: how the oil had been trapped below ground over millions of years; how Chevron had discovered the monster oil field long after many companies had concluded there was nothing there; the technical tricks they had used; the industrial espionage they had to evade from their sister companies in order to keep their discovery secret until they had bought up as much as they could of the rest of the oil field. The rows of young people sat listening quietly. And as I stared down at the upturned faces, I suddenly had the feeling that I could not go on. That day, the tension between my growing environmental concerns and my job description in the Royal School of Mines came to a head. I went straigh t back to my office and turned to the job pages in New Scientist magazine.

Catching a few rays: photovoltaic solar panels glint in the Spanish sun near Almeria.
Thomas Ranpach / Still Pictures

The events of 1988 had burrowed further into my conscience than I had admitted to myself. In June, a group of climate-change and ozone-depletion experts meeting in Toronto had issued a statement in which they concluded that the global warming being primed by the burning of oil, coal and gas could combine with acid rain and loss of ozone to unleash consequences, as they put it, second only to nuclear war. It seemed entirely logical. The northern-hemisphere summer of 1988 was rife with potential foretastes of what lay ahead if we kept turning up the thermostat. In the US Midwest an appalling drought spread misery through the farmlands. In Yellowstone Park, with drought at its worst for over 100 years, forest fires saw 25,000 firefighters battling walls of flame up to 60 metres high. Leading NASA scientist Jim Hansen testified in Congress that it was time to stop waffling and say that global warming had already started. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, giving a speech to the Royal Society in London, summarized precisely what I had begun to fear. ‘We may have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself,’ she warned. Here was a woman not otherwise known for eco-doom-mongering.

And there I stood, that day, giving my lecture on the giant offshore California oil field, teaching the students once again new tricks in the search for oil, as though concerns about the global environment – my occasional liberal studies classes notwithstanding – were somehow just a side show. My entire professional life had, until then, involved training young people like these to go forth and find fossil fuels, to add carbon as heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. Quite literally to fuel a threat to the future, and risk bequeathing their children an unliveable world. It had to stop.

the tension between my growing environmentalism and my job came to a head

Within weeks of scanning New Scientist’s jobs pages I found that the international environmental group Greenpeace wanted a scientist in-house in their British office to give technical advice to their campaigners. The issues were becoming increasingly complex, they said. The penalties for technical errors were becoming increasingly severe for environmental groups. Credibility was all.

So it was that Greenpeace offered me the chance of moving from one of the most conservative universities in the world to one of the most radical environment groups.

I jumped at it.

November 1991
Towards the end of my time as a geologist, I had been invited to join an institution known as the Geological Society Dining Club. The Dining Club was where the deans of the geological community met periodically, whether they inhabited the worlds of oil, mining or blue-skies research, to do what deans do over haute cuisine, fine wine, port and cigars: plot the future for their particular corner of the Establishment. I had been surprised to be invited to join. This was a privilege usually extended only to geologists nearing the ends of their careers. I was barely 30 at the time. I had gone with trepidation to dine the first time with the great and good of my profession. There I had been told, among the loosening tongues over the port, that I was the token young person in the club. The person who whispered this to me was, as she put it, one of the token women.

My membership of the Geological Society Dining Club did not terminate with my defection to Greenpeace and one evening in April 1991 I went to a dinner to renew acquaintance with some of my old heroes. I sat with David Jenkins, a chief geologist at BP. I was in the middle of a convivial dinner when Jenkins brought up my defection. Why had I done it? He was intrigued. I had thrown away a promising career to join a scientific bandwagon and a bunch of rabble-rousers.

A mid-morning chat in the flooded streets of Wertheim am Main, Germany. Worldwide droughts and floods are a sign of climate meltdown.
Peter Frischmuth / Still Pictures

So I rather reluctantly laid out my defence.

The BP man told me he could not understand why I was so worried. The danger, surely, was that oil and gas would run out before we could get alternative energy technologies ready to take over, not that we would have to cut emissions from hydrocarbon burning ahead of that date.

I asked him how he could possibly hold such a view given the sums of carbon involved in the atmosphere and in the fossil fuels left below ground.

All of a sudden I realized that he had no idea what the sums were.

I told him. David Jenkins listened to all this with a frown on his face. He had taken out a fountain pen and was writing down the numbers. ‘Are you sure about these figures?’ he asked.

I felt that I had discovered something very important here. The most basic information on the global-warming debate, it seemed, was not getting through to people like Jenkins. I had had a similar experience at the World Climate Conference, where I had been involved in a public debate with BP’s then managing director. It seemed that a kind of subtle corporate information shield was at work. People in the carbon-fuel industries were able to exchange perceived wisdoms about global warming in a comfortable mutually supportive milieu into which few opportunities were offered for insertion of worrying extraneous information. When information was aired widely in the industry, it was often spurious.

From the viewpoint of the environmentalist, the situation was at once depressing and yet intriguing. It meant that the power of reliable information could be strong indeed, if one could just find the opportunities to get it across. I resolved there and then to do as much advocacy work within the oil industry as they would let me.

with solar electric technology the opportunity to cut greenhouse emissions is huge

But why didn’t the men from the oil industry know the depressing arithmetic of carbon? The answer lies in the culture. It isn’t in the training – or within the culture of the industry itself, once you enter the fold – to deal with an integrated view of the atmosphere, the oceans, the biosphere and the entirety of the climate system. You would need a more holistic view of science and the world into which that science has to fit than the practitioners – academic or industrial – generally consider relevant to the needs of the trainee technician. The shameful truth is that I didn’t even know the carbon-arithmetic figures myself – despite having done a PhD at Oxford on ancient oceans – until the mid-1980s. Like some of my ex-students I had no idea that there was so little carbon in the modern atmosphere and so much in fossil-fuel reserves. Like them I could not have guessed the quantities involved to within thousands of millions of tonnes.

March 2001
As we approach the end of the hydrocarbon era the oil companies shuffle for position, patently uncertain of the way forward as their world changes around them as never before.

These days I read about the march of events in the global-warming story in spare moments as I go about the business of trying to transform myself into a solar-energy entrepreneur. The world’s first renewable-energy investment fund was set up late last year. As a founding board member I see first hand hard-nosed investors turning off carbon, becoming excited about renewable energy and beginning to deploy their capital accordingly. They are excited about a family of renewable micropower technologies – including wind power, fuel cells, biomass. But one emerging clean-energy industry is proving particularly interesting. With solar electric technology the opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions and build a bright new global market is huge. Using photovoltaic (PV) technology available today, homes and commercial buildings can be turned into power stations with their roofs, facades and even windows generating solar electricity. Even Shell’s former hea d of renewable energy professes that the solar cell will be to the first decade of this century what the microchip was to the closing decade of the last century. It is clear now that a multi-billion dollar global market will be emerging in solar power in the years ahead.

Japan, Germany and Britain have launched market-incentive programmes aiming to install tens of thousands of solar roofs and stimulate growth of their domestic solar industries.

The Clinton Administration proposed a similar programme, but could raise no funds for it. America’s competitors are positioning for the day when the price of solar electricity has fallen, as a result of manufacturing scale-ups, to the same as traditional electricity. At that point a clean-energy mass market will take off like a rocket. Once the upfront price of a solar system has been paid, the electricity is free for 30 years or more. If used efficiently this clean solar electricity can provide much if not all of a building’s electricity requirement. In concert with other clean technologies such as fuel cells, it can turn a building into a significant net exporter of electricity.

As things stand not enough people around the world understand that if we are going to survive global warming, much less prosper, we have to decarbonize economies as a matter of emergency. But understanding will grow and with it can come a renaissance of hope and caring. Last year we saw worst-of-the-century droughts and floods on virtually every continent. These first signs of a climatic meltdown will drive public concern inexorably upward. It is already doing so in some places. By the end of last year, an opinion survey showed 80 per cent of the flood-battered British population are now expecting to be adversely affected by global warming in their own lifetimes.

The tide will turn, I believe. But I don’t believe solar PV technologies are some kind of magic bullet. All members of the sizeable family of clean energy technologies will need to grow explosively alongside solar PV if society is to dismantle the global-warming threat.

Jeremy Leggett is CEO of Solar Century and Fellow in Solar Energy at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. For details on his book The Carbon War see: www.carbonwar.com and ‘Resources and campaigns’. [image, unknown]

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