In a song about the often misplaced emphasis on the journeys we take, Harry Chapin once sang, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”
In an upcoming National Geographic TV special, the magazine explores both the trip and ultimate destination of something that is at once so simple and yet so complex, and at times so controversial – a gallon of gas.
AAPG member Don Clarke, who acted as a consultant for the special (called “Gallon of Gas,” it premiered on the National Geographic Channel in late September), says this report is part of a larger effort by the magazine.
“The show is planned to be the first of a new National Geographic series (tentatively) titled ‘Engineering Journeys,’” Clarke said. “The plan for the series is to have each episode follow how something is made from natural resources to the consumer.”
Specifically, in the case of “Gallon of Gas,” it will be the story of oil – from its creation millions of years ago, according to program publicity, through the “prehistoric plankton, the transformation in the pressure cooker of time” and finally to “the raw stuff which fuels the modern world.”
In a sense, oil is the anthropomorphic star of the series – the elusive prize, the grail – as the show reveals its travels and travails.
Clarke is quick to point out that this is not a polemic.
“National Geographic’s plan was to provide an engineering look at the process and not make a political statement,” he said.
Saying the magazine was interested in both objectivity and the future of energy, Clarke emphasized the producers enlisted as many sides of the story as they could.
“They used other people from different backgrounds for other portions of the show,” he explained.
The ‘Gallon’ connection began with a phone call to AAPG Communications Director Larry Nation about two years ago from an independent television producer wanting information and contacts for the program concept.
During the conversation the California-based producer was pointed to Clarke as a resource.
Clarke is no stranger to either the “engineering” or the politics of the industry – and, having worked in California for his entire career, he’s familiar with public perceptions.
He started his career in the 1970s with the California State Lands Commission, where he rose to become senior geologist and got his first taste of misconceptions of his profession and industry.
From 1981-2004 he rose through the ranks of the Department of Oil Properties for the City of Long Beach – including responsibilities for the city’s environmentally and esthetically friendly offshore THUMS drilling operation – and he frequently dealt as a liaison linking the industry, citizens, critics and proponents over matters large and small.
He knows both sides of the tension that surrounds oil exploration – and he believes the show sheds some necessary light into this often misunderstood dynamic.
“I feel that education is strength,” he said. “The more the public knows about geology and the oil industry the better.”
He believes part of the industry’s problem has been the public’s ignorance as to what it thinks of those in the field.
“People fear what they don’t know – there have been problems with our industry in the past,” he concedes, “but there have also been problems with just about any big industry in the past. I feel that an understanding of how the oil industry works and the risks will help calm those fears.
“The public needs to know that we are all very concerned about the environment,” he continued. “The people in the oil industry live here, too – we need energy, and currently the oil industry provides most of the easily portable energy.”
Clarke, who currently is a consulting geologist for companies such as Tidelands Oil Production Company, Signal Hill Petroleum and Vintage, believes the industry’s story is one that it can’t always tell itself – which is why a show like “Gallon of Gas” is so valuable.
“It is exceedingly tough for AAPG to educate the public,” he observed. “Mainstream media have huge audiences.”
“Gallon of Gas,” he says, gives the industry a chance to actually contact a greater percentage of the public.
Clarke, a former chairman of the House of Delegates who has won the AAPG Distinguished Service award, DEG’s Public Outreach Award and three AAPG Certificates of Merit, thinks that contact is necessary to sort out the industry’s public relations persona, which he says keeps changing.
“In the first half of the 20th century the oil man was considered as an adventurous sort of guy who looked danger in the eye and went after the prize. He was sort of an American hero,” he said. “Old movies like ‘Tulsa’ and ‘Boomtown’ expressed the general feelings at the time.”
But then, in the ’60s and ’70s, a change took place.
“The oil industry was considered bad because they were big, powerful and not interested in protecting the environment,” he said.
But like the earlier perception, Clarke says, “Our industry seems to have just taken the hits with little concern. Many felt that the oil industry was in bed with the government and just didn’t care.”
Unfortunately, he says, “I have seen little improvement in public attitude since.
“I think that we still have problems,” he said. “There is not a lot of public trust. For example, most people feel that the oil industry spills a lot of oil, thus contaminating the environment. They don’t realize that the oil industry actually does not spill much. Most of the spillage is from the consumers and transportation.”
Problems and perceptions aside, Clarke believes “Gallon of Gas” can educate on a process that is at best unknown, at worst misunderstood.
“Very few people realize how much effort it takes to bring oil to the consumer,” he said. “Finding oil is difficult, and the petroleum geologist has done a fine job. This show should give the viewer a good idea of the process.”
It is a process, perhaps like the industry itself, which can be summed up by a line from another song:
What a long, strange trip it’s been.