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Industry Moves to Society's Norm

Environmental Evolution

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 Geological Survey.

"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.

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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 Geological Survey.

"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.

As 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 issue now."

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 perspective."

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, he said.

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."

Industry's Responsibility

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 II.

"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 government regulation.

"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 said.

"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."

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