A Conversation With an Environmentalist Oil Industry Worker

Cool, but does it pollute less than a Hummer?

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?

What else?
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.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Shutterstock

{ 18 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Corey

    This is one of the best, if not the best, article I have read on this subject. I, like this dude, work in the O&G industry and I see a lot of things other ppl don’t, experience a lot of things others don’t, & have views on these topics that a lot of others don’t. To be honest, I almost thought I was reading an interviewing myself. I share all of his points and opinions, facts are great, etc. In order to make the O&G industry a cleaner/safe place, we need to have ppl calling the shots to have a respect for the environment…ppl that go beyond what state and local law require…

  • Tim

    “To change the system, unfortunately, you have to be a part of it.” In an ideal world perhaps. But in a world where some bureaucracies and corporations employee enough individuals to be considered a nation state, change from within is akin to a butterfly trying willfully to change the course of a hurricane with its wing-beats. I work for a federal agency. Many of my colleagues are well-educated, caring and environmentally conscious. Yet, collectively the agency often makes bad decisions–not because its employees are stupid or uncaring, but simply out of inertia. It is like moving a boulder with bare hands. Occasionally, with the right hand placement and leverage you can feel it wobble ever so slightly. But the vast weight of policies and regulations hold it in place. The question posed above–”What has Greenpeace really accomplished in a policy sense in the last 20 years?”–really is a red herring, for little has really been accomplished in a policy sense by anybody over the last 20 years beyond the highlighting of deep divisions of environmental awareness and concern. None of this is intended to fault your friend or to paint the environment as hopelessly lost. Rather, it is a plea for organization so that the efforts of thousands of individuals within are not wasted rocking the boulder back and forth at each other.

  • D

    I work in the same industry and have a similar role, I agree with every single word of this piece. It is so refreshing to see some facts based in reality when discussing this topic.

  • Drew

    Your pal states that part of why he chose this line of work is “to make a difference in the industry by exploring for oil and gas while caring about the environment.” He goes on to say “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”. Really? Those are the only parts of why he chose this profession? The extremely high profitability of this industry had nothing to do with it? He states earlier “…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…”

    If your friend really is making any differences in the company he is working for, it would interest me greatly to know what they are. However, I suspect he has done significantly less for the environment than Greenpeace has in the last 20 years, and would go so far as to say that he is a profiteer trying to justifying his career choice.

  • Ben

    I also work in the industry and wish I could carry this around and hand it to people who give me crap. I am trying to make sure it is done right. I fish and hunt and camp and hike….I certainly don’t wanna do damage to the environment. Defining a problem is easy, however solving a problem is not always that way. Everyone that rallies against natural gas should do 3 things:

    1) Educate yourselves on the matter if you feel so passionately about it. I admire passion but an argument not based on facts and knowledge and logic is usually doomed. Don’t listen to the “puppy beaters” or the “tree huggers”…digest the info and make your own decision.. This is a trait that our society is greatly lacking these days. Don’t believe the talking heads…make up your own mind.

    2) Before you complain think about what all YOU do to negatively impact the environment. Like the article says natural gas is a necessity to our lives. Anyone who says otherwise is crazy and anyone who thinks we can switch off of fossil fuels quickly is even crazier. Most people who rally against natural gas use a significant amount of it in their everyday lives. People will say what can I do I am only one person. Well where will we be if everyone takes that stance? If you believe so strongly about this cause as to rally against it then I would assume it means enough to you to make personal sacrifices to achieve what you are rallying for. This brings me to #3 and the most important…

    3) DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!! Working the the industry does not make you part of “the machine”. Quit griping and go work for these companies and do what you can to make sure things are done right. Take a job with the DEP or EPA and help create a new system of regulations and policies to better our world. This is the only way to change things. If you don’t like what “Mr. Rich Man Gas Company Owner” does well guess what…he is rich and doesn’t care what you think!! He is gonna do what he does no matter how many rallies you go to. The ONLY way to stop him and his kind are to be involved in the industry in some way. Otherwise all the complaints and rallies and group gatherings are a waste of time! While passionate people rally for their cause, the industry carries on just like the day before and the day before that. Put yourself in a position to make a change if you really want it…that is the only way it will happen.

  • R. Beck

    Does anyone find it ironic that the author complains about Patagonia products… and the environmental coverage here is made possible from the support of Patagonia?

  • D

    And what has Drew done? So let’s hear it Drew, what do you do, and what change have you produced? I will just go with the assumption that you have done little to nothing and are one of the people he is talking about (uneducated on the topic, unrealistic on the options, and uniformed on the reality we live in).  This is not meant as a personal attack but as a truth to the issues we are dealing with.  You were able to attack him and the industry but produced NOTHING in terms of solutions. So let hear what you have come up with? Your main problem seems to be… He makes a good living and is able to fulfill his obligations on the college loans he accrued.  I am not sure why this is viewed as a negative?

  • n

    Yes, if I am addicted to drugs and I didn’t want to quit I suppose I would rather have a nice trustworthy science guy running the meth lab. And if we are going to have slavery, we might as well have a nice guy running the plantation, right?

    This guy is part of the problem not the solution. The solution is demand side reduction–energy conservation–but as long as supply is cheap, easy, efficient, and reliable and people are convinced that the fossil fuel industry is doing the best they can and just giving us what we want, people aren’t going to do the hard necessary work it takes to live differently. Keystone will mean continued efficient distribution which in turn will mean we can kick this ticking time bomb down the road a few more years so it blows up on our kids and not on us.

    This guy says we just have to make renewable energy cheaper, as if the fact that it isn’t cheaper right now is somehow the fault of the renewable energy industries, and not related to the fact that the big oil guys he works for own our government and have corrupted both politics and the economy so that there is no level playing field: it’s their ball, their game, and their rules. This is Vegas: the house makes the rules and the house wins.

    What am I doing about the energy crisis? I quit a decent job with benefits in order to start a business doing home energy conservation and renewables because, yes, we need to do something about this. The work is frequently unpleasant and even physically dangerous and it doesn’t pay and it’s hard to sell to folks. This guy is the reason why.

  • mack

    Thank you for this article. I find it incredibly rare that someone expresses themselves with so much grace especially considering the contentious nature of the O&G industry.
    As someone who’s family has been involved with the industry for over 30 years as well as being environmentalists, I have found the rising tide of anit-Industry rhetoric appaling and infuriatingly uninformed. It is refreshing to read a perspective that is graceful and intelligent without being pushy. The Industry, as a whole, has been TERRIBLE at representing itself and as a result the people who are a part of it are demonized. This article reveals that is possible to be in O&G while having a social and environmental conciousness.

    “Change starts at home.”

  • D

    N
    Your example makes no sense, you don’t have to be a drug addict, and you don’t have to have slaves. We (including YOU) have to have energy. As much as you hate it, you need it. Everything you have uses energy and the facts points out your hypocrisy. The USA uses 16% renewables 84% Fossil Fuels (and thats being generous)

    You are ignoring the facts or you just don’t know them. You can conserve and use renewables all you want, but where are you going to get the other 84% of this countries energy? You are living in a dream world and the bottom line is you cant be part of the solutions if you don’t understand “problem”.

    http://www.renewables-info.com/interesting_energy_articles/energy_usage_in_united_states_-_fossil_fuels_vs_renewables.html

    • Jeremy J.

      Hmm. But we’re hardly talking about energy that we need now, rather energy we anticipate that people will WANT in the future. Increasing oil demand if a luxury. Does China need a car for every person? Does the US? Rising demand for oil is mostly due to people wanting more more industry for a better quality of life at the expense of the future. A secondary driver is more people. As if the world needs more people. If you pull it out of the ground there will be a demand.

  • Drew

    D,
    I feel that there is nothing in my first comment to fuel an assumption that I am uneducated. I, like the man interviewed in this article, am a physicist. The point of my first comment was simply to point out that an abiding love of nature and desire to change big oil is probably not the only reason he went to work for this industry. I stand by that.

    Therefore, I requested an explanation of what he, an insider, has done to change the industry for the better, as that is why he stated he went to work for big oil (citing the inadequacies of Greenpeace along the way). So for you to take my question and to turn it into “Well, what have YOU done to make a change?” is a juvenile attempt to finger point and misdirect, while not giving any valid answer, as the industry of the interviewee and yourself is prone to do.

  • Michael

    It seems neither side of this debate wishes to answer the others’ accusations. Instead, both seem to just point their fingers at the other and suggest they don’t really understand the problem.

    Oil and gas industry folks suggest the environmentalist camp (for lack of a better term) don’t understand the realities of our society’s energy demands and that they require more than the arguably inadequate “greener” solutions offered to date.

    At the same time, educated on the intricacies of the environmental economics of the issue or not, the environmentalists decry that the oil and gas industry types are driven by dollar profit and rarely pay the true opportunity costs of resource exploitation its due respect.

    Without committing to either side of the debate, I think the unidentified interviewee raised some excellent points. As have some of the detractors that have commented.

    I think what this debate needs more than anything else is a dialogue where each side focuses on the other’s motivations in an understanding way, addressing them directly and diplomatically. In getting to the heart of where everyone is coming from, dialogue will be meaningful rather than the unproductive ideological mud-slinging that dominates debates like this. Stop preaching to the choir and start engaging your opponent’s empathetic and reasonable faculties.

  • Drew

    Michael,

    Well said. And as I stated in my first comment, it would interest me greatly to hear what changes the interviewee has helped (or is helping to) facilitate. In this I am (and was) genuine and not being facetious.

  • Ryan

    I understand where he is coming from, however looking for non sustainable ways to ease the demand problem isn’t going to keep the ball moving forward toward clean sustainable energies. Sure you can make a difference from within, but your paycheck will only allow you to do so much.

  • Key

    I understand exactly where he is coming from, I spent significant time working in alternative energy and have done environmental activism. A few of those years working for a startup resulted in very little pay (500 mo for 80+ hours week), a significant sacrifice. I to now work in the upstream oil and gas industry and have always considered myself a realist. Even when going door to door talking about environmental issues or the many conversations I have had, I wouldnt refute the fact that in the medium term oil and gas, nuclear (coal is an absolutely filth source of energy that I try to avoid talking about) etc. is critical for maintaining our way of life. Our food, health, sanatation, protection from the elements, transportation, and every industry requires the use of energy, and from where we stand right now there is no clean source that can replace oil and gas. If you want to see the impact of energy insecurity travel to a slum in a third world country, you will quickly realize we owe our way of life to energy. In truth most renewables really start to become feasible around 100 dollars a barrel, even still the renewable energy capacity would not even put a dent in energy consumption in the U.S. let alone globally. I would like to think in our lifetime with major breakthroughs we can start to transform our current reality, but with a background in chemistry I can tell you that the challenges are significant. We should continue r&d in renewables, but we should stop pretending that we can live without petroleum. Helping to provide for the public in oil and gas or working to secure a better future through clean renewable products are both necessary and commendable. Something that everyone can do today is find ways to be more efficient, if everyone did this that would put a bigger dent in ” dirty energy” consumption than any product out there today.

  • Jeremy J.

    27000 Trillion Watt-hours divide by (360*24) = 3 Trillion watts.

    At 50 cents per watt.. for solar..
    Let’s say $1 per watt, since they only operate during the day..
    We’re looking at $3 trillion to replace the US grid with renewables.

    Let us say it takes three times that for labor involved and that we could do it for our GDP of 12 trillion.

    This is about how much was spent on the bailouts, including secret fed. bailouts. How is this unreasonable?

  • Rachel

    Thank you so much for sharing this interview. As a young woman who is an environmentalist and a petroleum engineer, I found it very compelling and inspiring.

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