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?


Blogger pasq242 said...

Yes, if we're addicted to anything, it's a lifestyle of convenience.

I am always kind of amused by the idea of solving the energy/climate crisis with technology; we're solving the wrong problem, and no one seems to be conscious of that.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I randomly clicked through to your blog from a comment you left at nonagonal, a blog I enjoy quite a bit.

I'm a geologist, and an environmentally minded one at that, who's spent the last few years up in Western Canada working as a wellsite geologist out on the rigs drilling oil and gas wells. And have obviously thought about a lot of the things you bring up in the post.

Anyway. I appreciate the post and it was random I clicked through to the blog when this was your most recent entry. I think I'll keep reading.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Waan said...

Well thanks! You'll soon figure out (if you haven't already) that I average about one post a month--a bit slower than our friend in Portland.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Chief Jimbo said...

I tend to agree with Mike. I love the people who say "Evil Oil Companies" this and that, but every week I see them filling their tank. I don't fault the oil companies basically because they follow good capitalism: If people will buy your shit for higher prices than keep upping the price until price = demand.

As usual I've got a big long blog post to write on the subject but will probably never publish, but my main beef with oil is that the majority of oil rich nations hold some level antipathy for the US or oppressive in nature (Wahabis in Saudi, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria), and with every drop I put in my gas tank is another dollar in their coffers.

But I say Fuck em all...especially Putin. Reduce consumption, increase efficiency, cut out the waste, and diversify the means of harvesting and using energy.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Chief Jimbo said...

oh and at least it's not like you are working for the mexican mining companies. When I was down there climbing at El Potrero Chico and they just start at the bottom and just wipe out complete mountain formations. I'm pretty sure it's strip mining.

3:14 PM  

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