To what extent is the environment a concern
in the petroleum industry?
To exactly the same extent as in society as a whole,
according to Lee C. Gerhard, principal geologist for the Kansas
El Dorado photo courtesy of the Kansas Oil
Montana-North Dakota photo by Lee Gerhard
In the industry's infancy, scenes like this
one showing Kansas' El Dorado Field in 1915 were common --
derricks and oil splashed the countryside -- but today such
scenes are gone, replaced with an approach found on the Montana-North
Dakota border (right), where facilities painted in camoflage
colors blend in with the countryside.
"Companies do not lead. They are not out in front
of society," he said, "but they are not behind society."
Gerhard, former president and one of the architects
of AAPG's Division of Environmental Geosciences, has examined current
and past environmental practices in the industry for a paper he's
writing with co-author William F. Lawson, director of the U.S. Department
of Energy's National Petroleum Technology Center in Tulsa.
Their paper, "Environmental Evolution of the Petroleum
Industry," is a subject that holds a personal fascination for Gerhard.
"I keep a working file of all these things, and I
have for many years," he said. "It may sound strange, but I've been
interested in this subject since the early 1960s."
In the paper, Gerhard primarily considers the development
and effects of technology in exploration and geophysics, exploration
drilling, production and post-production.
"Much of the environmental progress of the petroleum
E&P industry is tied directly to the invention and deployment
of new technologies for locating, drilling and producing the world's
oil and gas," he wrote.
Gerhard sets out to examine environmentalism in E&P
during the past 40 years, with a look at "its direction and probable
future progress." But he goes back to the earliest days of U.S.
oil production to make a point about past practices.
"For instance, the way we treated (handled) saltwater
in the old days in the Titusville area was that we let it flow down
the creeks. In more modern practices it's reinjected into other
aquifers," he noted.
After examining the history of the petroleum industry's
relation to environmental concerns, he's convinced that the industry
evolves with -- and responds to -- changing social views.
Gerhard sees the E&P sector of today's industry
as "benign" in environmental impact. Earlier practices may have
been less benign, he said, but they were in step with practices
in other industries at the time.
"The oil industry in those days met the norms of
society," he commented. "It meets the norms of society today, and
it will meet the norms of society in the future."
Horse of a Different Color
This evolution isn't always conscious or purposeful.
Gerhard said advances in technology have tended to
make the industry more efficient and less intrusive.
an example, he cited the reduction in a wellsite footprint from
60 acres to just six acres at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. And he's developed
a comparison of horse power with modern horsepower, in efficiency
and environmental effect.
"Modern automobiles pollute an order of magnitude
less than horses," Gerhard said. "Horses add 772 grams of pollution
per kilometer traveled, modern cars only 72.4 grams per kilometer."
Gerhard recalled attending a meeting of scientists
and explaining the minimized effects of today's E&P.
"The shocked reaction of the audience -- who were
not geologists and were not members of the petroleum industry --
to the pictures I showed and the arguments I made, made me realize
I needed to write this paper," he said.
Start Spreading the News
Lawson agrees that "industry has been driven to become
more efficient, and one of the outcomes is that it has given industry
a better environmental posture."
Companies like Enron and BP have become aggressors
in environmental practices, he noted.
"These companies have really taken the lead and the
moral high ground," Lawson said. "They have set their own standards
for reducing emissions.
"I think we'll likely see other companies doing some
similar things, large companies," he continued. "And we're going
to see more and more people wanting to know about energy, because
energy will be so important to the U.S. economy over the next decade."
What worries Lawson is the lack of capital investment
in the energy industry, which has crippled areas from E&P resources
to pipeline infrastructure to refineries.
That's unfortunate but hardly surprising, he said.
"If you look at the energy sector as a whole, the
return on investment has been very, very low compared to other segments
of our economy, so there hasn't been much of an incentive to invest
during recent years," he explained. "But if energy prices remain
high, there will be a return on investment. It's a world commodity
Lawson said he would like to see investment in technologies
that could restore E&P areas to pristine condition within five
years, allow exploration in rain forests without disruption, reduce
volumes of drilling fluids, eliminate the need to build roads in
wilderness areas and achieve other environmental aims.
He sees a new effort to "communicate environmentally"
in the petroleum industry.
"Before you can gain access, you have to gain credibility
that you can do a good job of husbandry with the environment as
a whole," he said.
"There are many areas where the industry does have
a good story to tell. The independents are not very united in telling
their story -- at least they haven't been -- but the independents
have a good story to tell."
Teaching the Educated
Gerhard realizes that he brings up controversial
points in discussing the industry and the environment. He called
protesters against E&P "highly schooled but poorly educated.
"There are a couple of problems," he said. "First,
the public doesn't realize that the industry is pretty benign, as
far as E&P goes. And the American industry is E&P.
"The second thing is that they have no historical
And Gerhard risks irritating other sectors of the
industry by separating out the effects of E&P for comparison.
Almost all serious environmental concerns have to do with transportation
and storage or refining and fuels instead of upstream operations,
Gerhard doesn't see even the Exxon Valdez spill as
an industry problem.
"That was a shipping accident," he stated flatly.
"It had nothing to do with the oil industry, other than that the
cargo happened to be oil."
Environmentalism itself has gone through an evolution,
as well as a recycling of some ideas, Gerhard said. He remembered
growing up as a dedicated recycler of discards during World War
"As a little kid, I went out and gathered tin cans,"
he recalled. "Whatever we put out, we gathered up and turned into
ammunition or armaments."
In tracing the evolution of environmental activism,
he also pointed out a shift from health and safety concerns -- "No
one that I know argues about health and safety," he said -- to interest
in the visual, aesthetic and recreational environment.
He wondered if the public could adequately assess
the cost-benefit trade-off among petroleum, human health and safety,
and purely aesthetic concerns.
"The American consumer for the first time right now
with the price of natural gas is seeing up front the effects of
the interest in recreation and aesthetics," he said.
Gerhard related his experience in explaining to a
roomful of people the social benefits of petroleum, "including the
pharmaceuticals that were keeping half the people in that room alive."
At the same time, he acknowledged that the social benefits of environmental
protection have attained broad support.
"We have gone through this fundamental social change
that's going to last quite a while, which is that clean is good,"
he said. "And I agree with that."
With arguments on both sides, Gerhard emphasized
the importance of allowing exploration and production to continue
in accordance with society's environmental standards, in hopes of
providing the energy to meet society's needs.
"There isn't any back-up," he said. "None of the
proposed renewable-energy resource bases can power a city."
He has no doubt that E&P can and will take place
without any long-term environmental damage.
"Impacts (from E&P) are transitory," he noted.
"And almost any impact you can think of is already constrained by
"In the case of producing oil fields, the environmental
presence might last for 70 or 80 years," he continued, "but once
they're gone, you'll have a hard time knowing they were there."
Gerhard said future economic realities probably will
do more than any other factor to shape the nature of environmental
concerns in society. The petroleum industry can have an influence
if it's willing to communicate, he believes.
He isn't sure where his study of environmental evolution
will eventually be published. But it's up to the industry, including
geologists, to present the facts to the public, according to Gerhard.
"Somehow we have to communicate to ourselves and
to the rest of the world what are the effects of what we do," he
"We have to tell our own story. Otherwise, other
people are going to tell it for us, with their own spin. We have
to tell it like it is."