We have been going green for some time, just in case you haven’t noticed. With an emphasis on environmental stewardship in the president’s “America First Energy Plan,” our industry, science and profession have been taking note of the importance of being prominent and proactive in assuring the public and other stakeholders that the energy extraction industry implements environmental stewardship in a manner equivalent to its skill and innovation in extracting the oil, gas and minerals that society needs.
In listening to discussions about climate change not too long ago, I asked myself, “What if energy independence, green jobs, livable cities, clean water and air, environment sustainability — what if we achieved all of this, but it was a hoax and we did it all for nothing?”
I was not sure I would be comfortable with the outcome. Basically, we all want these things — why wouldn’t we? And what we know and do not know, and how we go about achieving these lofty goals, is ultimately what these discussions are all about.
A good way to begin is by having a dialogue and defining and understanding exactly what “environmental stewardship” is.
Aldo Leopold, in his 1949 landmark book “A Sand Country Almanac,” considered the concept of a “land ethic” and called for moral responsibility in our understanding and interactions with the natural world — that being the land, the animals and the plants that live upon it. Leopold felt that the relationship between people and the land was intertwined, and in the moral code he espoused, caring for people could not be separated from caring for the land.
This concept of “land ethic” would evolve, and in the 1970s, energy production and environmental issues related to the industrial complex and energy resources began to creep into the public’s consciousness. Former President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and Greenpeace was formed in Vancouver in 1971. The United States endured the OPEC crisis in 1973 and the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Environmental concerns would become even more visible through the 1980s and ‘90s, giving rise to many geoscientists moving professionally into environmental fields and recognizing that all industry has environmental impact and needs resources to address it.
We currently view environmental stewardship as the crossroads between environmental, social and economic sectors. The environmental sector addresses natural resources usage, environmental management and pollution prevention. The social sector includes standards of living, education, community and equal opportunity. The economic sector addresses profit, cost saving, economic growth and research and development. All three sectors intermingle (i.e., social/environmental, environmental/economic and economic/social).
“Sustainability” is the term we use for the area in which all three primary sectors meet and interact. Being energy independent, of course, by definition, implies that our energy needs are available, but availability is not sustainability. The concept of availability refers to something that is present and ready for use, and is well established in the literature of stochastic modeling and optimal maintenance. Availability of a system is typically measured as a factor of its reliability. Reliability is the ability to be relied or depended upon, with regard to accuracy, honesty or achievement. As reliability increases, so does availability. Thus, as we move from the concept of availability to sustainability, the concept of environmental stewardship has evolved over the years into the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices.
Weighing the Trade-Offs
Reliable and affordable energy is essential to life as we know it. However, behind the convenience provided by today’s technology and innovation, behind the scenes, the energy supply chain is quite complex.
It begins with resource exploration and extraction, development of massive distribution systems, and a whole number of storage and refining facilities, among other demands, which all have a footprint of varying dimensions and potential environmental impacts. There is no free ride — it all has a definable impact.
As we move into the realm of energy independence and become an energy exporter, we are confronted with two questions:
Do the social and economic benefits outweigh the environmental effects?
Are the energy sources being developed in the most environmentally sensitive and sustainable manner achievable?
These are two very important questions for our industry to continually ask.
Anybody can be an environmental steward. All one really has to do is be aware and knowledgeable of the world around you and take the appropriate steps to minimize adverse impact to the environment, regardless of the activities or operations in which you are involved. All industrial operations and activities have some environmental impact, and there is little question when it comes to local issues such as noise, air and water quality, traffic and overall aesthetics. These issues appear to be predominant due to their inherent visibility with the community at large.
In summary, for us humans in social systems or ecosystems, the concept of sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic and social dimensions and encompasses the concept of stewardship — the responsible management of resource use. The role we as geoscientists play enhances the lives of everyone and impacts every aspect of American life, including conventional, alternative and renewable energy, the economy, the environment, water and other resources, transportation, social contracts and overall worker and public health, safety and welfare, and much more. How we communicate this is crucial in whether we succeed. Our efforts to reduce our environmental footprint while maintaining exceptional deliverability and operational results is the goal: environmental sustainability.
I have had the pleasure of being involved with a large group of hard-working individuals to develop the program for the AAPG 2018 Annual Convention and Exhibition. As part of the program being developed, several leading environmental themes that are relevant and current have been incorporated. They include challenges to the social contract, mitigating environmental impacts in the oil and gas industry, surface and groundwater water quality, carbon management, formation waters and fluid migration, fugitive gas emissions, well integrity, coastal and oceanic environmental challenges, and issues related to well stimulation and high volume hydraulic fracturing operations. When viewed in its entirety, we as professional geoscientists can play a leadership and educational role under the broad umbrella we call environmental stewardship. We as geoscientists are and must continue to be environmental stewards too!