I often learn the most important lessons when I am least prepared and from those most unexpected.
On March 23, students and faculty advisers representing the AAPG student chapter at Khon Kaen (KK) University in northeast Thailand rode five hours on a bus to meet our small AAPG presidential delegation in the offices of PTTEP, a major national oil company headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand.
The KK students, many of them female, presented with pride a short video about their university and geology department. We then engaged in conversation about their experiences and perceptions.
I made a presentation later that evening to about 100 folks comprising staff from PTTEP, Chevron, a few smaller companies and independents, and the KK students. The talk ended around 7:30 p.m., and the students then got on the bus for the five-hour drive home. I was a bit awed by their dedication.
At the end of the session, the president of the Khon Kaen AAPG student chapter, a young woman, said, “Dr. Tinker, we seek your help.”
What help was the student leader looking for?
Not money, equipment or other “stuff.”
Instead, she was in search of access to AAPG geoscientists for her university, as in Distinguished Lecturers or speakers in our Visiting Geoscientist Program, and training such as workshops, short courses and field schools.
Essentially, she was asking the largest professional association of geoscientists in the world to help Khon Kaen University, in remote northern Thailand, become globally relevant.
Khon Kaen University is not unique. I have been fortunate during the past year to visit with faculty and/or students from universities in Malaysia, Scotland, England, Russia, Poland, Germany, China, Nigeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, U.A.E. and South Africa. Although culture, language, facilities and instruction vary, the sentiment is consistent:
“Dr. Tinker, we are striving to learn, grow, expand and globalize. We want to matter.”
The world is changing. Change does not always happen quickly, but the pace of change can be accelerated by crisis. The world is in a global recession; some call it a crisis. There is a new leader in the United States, a leader who has ignited hope in the world. President Obama, in a very short time, has become larger than life on the global stage. I know; I have seen the reaction personally on several continents.
Do the times make the person or does the person make the times? Perhaps some of each. Regardless, in these energy “times” the political dialogue is about non-fossil energy – “green energy” and “green jobs.” Substantial investments are being considered, to attempt to accelerate the pace of energy change.
Those in the fossil fuel industry could feel threatened, hunker down, retrench and resist. Many would understand such a reaction. In fact, when I go to Washington, D.C., I often have to convince my “fossil-fuel” self to get off the airplane!
But these feelings are fleeting, because I have seen a world that remains massively engaged in fossil fuels. I see young geologists in universities around the globe beginning to recognize that applied geosciences matter now more than ever. I see “national” oil companies – those owned in large majority by the state – fast becoming “international” oil companies, and international oil companies – struggling under the weight of misguided Western policies that reflect an under-informed energy public.
I have never met a petroleum geoscientist who believes that the supply of oil is infinite. To most geoscientists, it is not a question of whether there will come a day when fossil fuels will no longer be combusted as a source of heat energy. Instead, the question is when that day will come – and which form(s) of energy have the capacity to replace fossil fuels.
Most geologists also recognize that day may not be soon, because oil resources far exceed proven reserves, conventional and unconventional natural gas resources could exceed 30,000 TcF (not including hydrates!) and then there is coal.
Resource geoscientists and engineers understand that fossil fuel reserves increase with technology, price and understanding. We also understand the time, cost, technology and new invention required to transition to energy alternatives that have the capacity to meet the required scale of global energy demand.
So instead of hunkering down, we must square our shoulders, get off the metaphorical airplane and become part of the solution.
What lesson did I learn from the student in Thailand?
I learned that young people around the world are desperate to do something that matters. They need me, they need us, to share our experience and to impart our collective knowledge.
They need us to educate the world to the reality that energy transitions take time, efficiency is vital and a stable supply of fossil fuels is the bridge to an alternative energy future.
They need us to embrace change and lead them into the future. Their future.
That is a powerful lesson indeed.
Scott W. Tinker, AAPG President (2008-09), is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin and Texas state geologist. Tinker also holds the Allday Endowed Chair in the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin. He has been a Distinguished Lecturer for AAPG as well as Distinguished Ethics Lecturer for the AAPG.