I've had a number of conversations over beers with other industry people on this topic and decided to finally write a post on it.
John Hofmeister, the former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, wrote in his excellent book "Why We Hate the Oil Companies" (paraphrasing) if the Right got their way, they would destroy the environment and if the Left got their way, they would destroy society. That has given me food for thought on a pretty controversial topic.
We are a fossil fuel society. If we abruptly killed all oil and gas production, as the left wants, something like 1/3 of the world's population would starve. That's not hyperbole. Agricultural yield grew exponentially in the 1950's as a result of the green revolution. This included advances in disease resistant, high yield cereal grains and - most importantly - the widespread availability of chemical fertilizer following WWII. Fertilizer made using the Haber-Bosch process using natural gas as a feedstock. This isn't including for the diesel and fuels need to harvest, process and transport food. I'm only talking about food production, not anything else*.
I feel that we (as in people who work in E&P) are always cast as the dirty evil boogey-man who is to be despised and maligned until a carbon free green future of plentiful energy finally appears. I avoid arguments because it's not much of a discussion and I'm not a confrontational person by nature. Be that as it may, I've found myself in the position with people, who once finding out what I do for a living, want to engage in long debate about fossil fuels and why Robert Redford and other celebrities who have never set a foot on a drill site or done hard manual work thinks we (specifically me) are destroying the earth.
99% of the time, these people have zero idea of how oil comes out of the ground or anything about energy.
It's quite rich when Leonardo DiCaprio goes flying around on his JP-5 guzzling Lear jet, buzzing off in a equally fuel sucking helicopter out to see "endangered habitats" with a teary eyed Greenpeace activist, bundled up in an expensive Goretex jacket, all the while preaching of the evil of fossil fuels.
Take Alaska, ever celebrity and their brother-in-law has weighed in on the horror of opening up the ANWR, crying their eyes out about how this will be a caribou genocide. Never mind that the caribou population has actually INCREASED during the 45 years that Prudhoe Bay has been operating. The area opened up is like 2% of the entire protected area which is the size of Idaho. Opening up ANWR should have happened a long time ago. All this talk about ANWR being the "last piece of pristine wilderness we own" is complete and utter bull pucky.
Have you ever looked at a map of Alaska? Alaska is pristine because compared to the lower-48. NOBODY LIVES THERE!
I'm getting out the maps.
It's this extreme environmental position that nothing anywhere, not a single piece of moss, should ever be touched by human hands that I hate. I feel like the conversation about environmentalism would go so much further in E&P if we weren't afraid that anything we say can and will be used against us by people whose primary goal is to shut down drilling rather than improve and make the process cleaner. It's like discussing how to improve nursing procedures to reduce the risks of infections and contamination and have your points hi-jacked by an anti-vaxxer who does not believe in modern healthcare and thinks surviving smallpox should be an experience all children have in common.
It's no secret that the oil industry has a bit of dislike for environmental agencies and groups. Part of it is the regulations, some logically, others very not so. But a bigger part is the constant stream of derision, hate and malice that is constantly hurled at us.
Oddly enough, most politically conservative E&P individuals are actually very environmentally conscious. My dad, a life-long NRA member, conservative talk-radio listener and North Slope engineer is a good case study. He wouldn't miss an opportunity to crack a joke about something stupid (and very expensive) that had happened on the North Slope in the name of environmental regulation, "some complete idiot tree hugger came up with....". He enjoys making fun of Prius drivers, liberals and tree huggers.
He's not a statistical anomaly, many of the people I work with fall in the same general political profile and have very similar environmental belief. They care about plastics getting into the environment and don't like pissing energy away. Do not get them started on water heater efficiency, they will happily talk for hours on the subject.
We forget that the EPA was established by a Republican President (albeit not a well remembered president), Richard Nixon, and for good reason. He commissioned a group of photographers to document some extremely contaminated industrial sites so that we would not forget just how badly we f***** up.
There are extreme people on the right who think they should be able to do what they like, wherever the like and benzene contamination in drinking water is not a big deal. Or people like Tony Hayward, who would "like to get their life back" days after a blowout and rig fire that killed 11 people and caused the then unfolding Gulf environmental disaster. There is a fixed amount of land and hence we value it. Once land has been contaminated and destroyed, the damage can be irreversible or take decades and huge amounts of money to be re-mediated.
From an economic point of view and in the long run, environmentalism is force for good. If we do things the right way, properly dispose of waste, mitigate environmental impacts, we win. If we carefully drill wells on land such that there is no contamination and our footprint is minor, the landowner reaps the financial reward of oil/gas royalties, not exchanging the value of their land for the monetary value of the royalty payments. If they should later want to sell the land, particularly if it is agriculture land, its value is undiminished. Wealth is created. Companies with excellent environmental track records will have easier time acquiring mineral right and hence have better exploration options. In the US, mineral rights belong to private land owners. This is a particular legal state. In most areas of the world, mineral rights belong to the government. An enduring legacy of state owned enterprises** is environmental devastation. Think of PDVSA or Nirilsk Nickel. Or China, were companies can dump toxic waist into rivers with impunity.
**State owned enterprises are generally characteristic of socialist/communist governments which are considered politically to be "left". It is ironic how left-leaning Americans tend to be the most loud and vocal opponents to a single leaf being harmed when the greatest environmental offenders are/were state-owned enterprises operating for the sake of the public good. The past tense "were" is used because state-owned enterprises are notorious for being unable to operate and make a profit hence many ending up in the sh*t bin of history.
People take energy for granted.
They want to live in a hemp bubble in which solar panels' photo-voltaic cells don't require cadmium, lead, plastic and highly processed pure silicone wafers, or wind turbines aren't made from steel that is made from iron ore that is mined with diesel power and smelted and purified with coke and massive amounts of (usually coal) thermal energy. Not to mention the blades which are made of carbon reinforced plastics and other composites. Those require oil, a well must be drilled in Texas, North Dakota or Alaska and that oil must be transported and refined to make those beautiful blades.
I'll settle for energy development that strives for responsible operation and minimal environmental disturbance. You can be a petroleum engineer, live to drill and love nature and be environmentally conscious.
I wish people could understand that.