Energy, Economy And Environment Linked Together

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

In my August column I discussed the bridge between energy and the economy. Another key bridge for AAPG, and one more difficult to construct intellectually, is the link between energy and the environment.

I consider myself an environmentalist. Many geologists are.

To me that means I am awed by the beauty of nature – from the tenacity of the desert to the majesty of the mountains to the magnitude of the sea. I spend time out-of-doors, tread as lightly as I can and try to leave places better than I find them. I contribute financially to certain environmental concerns. I attempt to minimize my environmental footprint given the available technological options (such as installing fluorescent bulbs throughout the house; my seven-year-old daughter concluded correctly, “Gee Dad, this won’t pay out!” And yet we all felt better!) and to the extent I can afford.

To the extent I can afford? What does that mean?

The energy-environment bridge is built on an economic foundation. Energy is required for a healthy economy, and a healthy economy is requisite to a clean environment. Said differently, in a global or national recession, not much is invested in the environment; we have other issues and concerns to deal with that are more pressing. The economy-environment link, however, may not be widely understood.

Today’s energy debate is often framed as a choice between fossil fuels and non-fossil fuels, or between fossil fuels and the environment. These are red herrings.

In fact, a healthy U.S. and global economy allows for substantial investment in our environment. And a healthy economy requires energy.

A stable and continuous supply of fossil fuels is needed while we develop and expand alternative fuels – for our economy and for the environment.

Fossil fuels, alternate energy, the economy and the environment are not mutually exclusive choices. They are inextricably linked. They are symbiotic.

But wait, aren’t fossil fuels bad and wrecking the environment?!

There was a time when production of fossil fuels had a major impact on the surface of the Earth. However, understanding has advanced and technology has evolved and improved dramatically:

  • Complex horizontal-well configurations allow thousands of subsurface acres to be accessed from a 10-acre onshore pad or offshore platform.
  • Pipelines and gas-gathering systems are automated and efficient so that liquid and atmospheric releases are more readily detected and more rapidly mitigated.
  • Marine production and transportation systems of liquid and natural gas fuels are designed to react to natural disasters such as hurricanes and even earthquakes.
  • Reclamation of coal-mining operations results in land that resembles native conditions much more closely than did the pre-mining landscape.

U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes Katrina and Rita were devastating natural disasters. However, the greatest environmental story of the decade in terms of oil and gas was the one that followed Katrina and Rita. No major spills or leaks from offshore operations – the environmental disaster that wasn’t! Too bad major media outlets did not see fit to run that story.

So here we sit today with oil and natural gas resources off every U.S. coast – Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf – under drilling moratoria on the false pretense that drilling hurts the environment.

Yes, there have been accidents – accidents happen whenever humans and large-scale technology come together. Those accidents grow fewer with each passing decade as technology and knowledge advance. Accidents are part of our world, and just as they happen with oil and natural gas, they will happen with wind and solar systems when these are developed and deployed at the massive production scales needed to make an impact. Accidents are never good, but they are relatively rare.

The greater disaster, and one that is no accident, is continuing policies that impose drilling moratoria that forbid us to develop our own fossil energy resources – resources that would allow us to build a stable economic bridge to an alternate energy future.

The unintended consequence of this misplaced policy is harming our economy and, consequently, reducing the level of investment in our environment.

As an environmentalist, I find this unacceptable.

As in August, let me conclude in a similar way this month, but expand: The next time you meet someone and are asked, “What do you do?” tell them you are a geologist and an environmentalist in the oil and gas business.

Let them know what that really means. Put a human face on our global energy, economic and environmental future!

We are the bridge.

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President's Column

President's Column - Scott Tinker
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.

President's Column

AAPG Presidents offer thoughts and information about their experiences for the Association. 


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