Friday, February 29, 2008

The Geologist's Dilemma

In the interest of fairness: almost a third of the stocks and mutual funds I own are in "Oil & Gas" and a GIS grant/contract I just finished was for the benefit of a local gold mining outfit. The reader might suspect my moral compass is being overpowered by financial self-interest. My response belies some selfishness: financially and professionally, I go where the opportunity is--though not easily. And there's the issue.

The science of understanding the earth is closely related to the economics of getting stuff out of the earth--and we definitely need stuff out of the earth. Recycling, sadly, only goes so far and petroleum is both handy and established for our energy needs. There is a clear demand for these things. On top of that, I strongly believe the average person does not appreciate how many resources their lifestyle demands. The maraschino cherry: have you ever heard of an environmentalist who could conceive of a mine/drill site they'd actually approve of? No. Frankly, that's because they are hideous.

During my second year at Virginia Tech, my "Introduction to Mining Engineering" class (yes, I actually spent a semester as a mining engineer) took a field trip to coal mine in West Virginia. They practiced "mountain-top removal": this is a process wherein the top of a mountain or ridge is literally removed to get at the flat-lying coal seam beneath. The top ("overburden") is dumped in to adjacent valleys and reclaimed to re-establish native flora/fauna and minimize acid-mine drainage (a side effect of virtually any mining operation). I could talk ad nauseam about overburden disposal, acid mine drainage, regulatory laxity, wholesale landscape destruction, the bleak long-term prospects for these corners of West Virginia and Kentucky, and the unprovoked yet overly-defensive mine management during our visit. But the one thing that I will always remember is how completely destroyed the place was. Literally as far as the eye could see was complete devastation. This wasn't a pit either--we were standing on a plateau and the size of the place simply beggared belief. There are dozens of these places scattered over southwest West Virginia and eastern Kentucky (note the gray splotches toward the center of this image--those aren't cities).

Admittedly this is an extreme example. Mountaintop removal is not common and is only useful for certain geology and topography. But mining is inherently destructive to the landscape. What about petroleum production? Instead of gashing holes in to the earth that weep acid for years afterwards, drilling for oil and pumping it around the country is a fairly low-impact activity. Yes, there are oil leaks; yes, drilling pads are unsightly. But roads, too, demand earth movers, de-icing chemicals, leaky gas stations, and fluid-dribbling vehicles. They fragment ecosystems and serve as corridors for pollution. Why don't we view the oilworker the same as the road engineer? It's certainly easier to dislike large conglomerates and foreign countries who reap gargantuan profits from our day-to-day activities than it is the millions of small-time construction outfits. But which is cause and which is effect--Big Oil or big demand?

Oil, like mining, has a stigma that is difficult to define and not easily defended. But I still feel it strongly and plenty of other geologists do too. Moreover for us, the best money and some of the best research is done for Big Oil or mining companies. They fund plenty of graduate students and professors and can serve as invaluable resume-building experiences. Despite our appreciation for skarn deposits and salt diapirs, we're only half-joking when we talk about working for "the dark side". My opinion of working for Big Oil changes from day to day: sometimes I can entertain the thought (some of the most powerful computing in the world! imaging the subsurface!! off the arctic coast of Canada!!! at 40,000 feet!!! FOR GAS HYDRATES!!!) and other days I simply cannot. The Old Man tried to recast the issue: "It's not like you're working for a drug company." Isn't it?

Monday, February 04, 2008

How about those Giants?

This has nothing to do with the Superbowl.

Steve Reich redux

Joe 2.0 sent this to me. It's simply gorgeous. I know what you're thinking: did that big, tough, beefy slab of Waan just use the word "gorgeous"? Well, yes. Take some time out of your day and listen to this excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians. If your spine doesn't tingle ... well, I mean, how could it not?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Rep. Tom Davis III (R-Va.)

Tom Davis is retiring from Congress. His Q&A with the Post is worth a read even if you aren't from Virginia.

For the record, Rep. Davis is the motherfucking straight shit. When was the last time you heard about a Republican congressman fighting for the DC right to vote? For that matter, how many congressman can you count who truly live by the credo of "bipartisanship"?

When I was up to my eyeballs in uninformed Leftist Coast rhetoric about how evil Republican Nazis were screwing our collective brains out and how the Democrat saviors were the last possible chance for democracy etc etc, I could proudly point to Virginia--conservative, East Coast, heart-of-the-Confederacy Virginia--as having produced aisle-crossing moderates like Tom Davis and Mark Warner. Both were more focused on solving problems than toeing the party line, and both got a lot done. For severely-moderate independents like myself, guys like these served as islands of political sanity during long stretches of national hang-wringing and divisiveness. [Admittedly for Oregon, part of the problem is that lately the state Republican Party seems only capable of producing ultraconservative foaming-at-the-mouth backwoods candidates; and in fairness, Virginia also produced notable loudmouth Jim Webb (D) and over-conservative Jim Gilmore (R). But I'd argue that, at least lately, Oregonian voters place much greater importance on ideology than the average Virginian.]

In fact, I even got to meet the guy during the 1996 election. A high school friend and I attended one of Davis' talks in Fairfax and I can honestly say that he irritated me. He seemed aloof, even evasive. But the man's record speaks for itself.

Hats off to you Tom Davis, and I hope you return to public service some day.