Stories of Sustainable Energy Development

As I left one of the July 2018 URTeC talks that somehow spoke to the future of energy development and/or sustainable development, I overheard two young professionals in conversation. One said to the other something like, “Is another word for this … brainwashing?”

I was delighted with such questioning and aware minds, and I entered into a conversation with them. Their view of the future is very middle-of-the-road: hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, will be the transition to a more renewable-based energy future, but the rate of that change is unknown and dependent on factors way beyond three people talking.

This column was already in my mind on how to follow AAPG President Denise Cox’s column in the July EXPLORER concerning “sustainable energy development” (or similar phrases we hear). But their questioning of a pro-hydrocarbon talk that spoke to the good that this industry does drove home a point to me. How do we tell our stories, and how have we done so in the past? The term “brainwashing” reminded me of the more modern word “gaslighting,” a term derived from the 1938 play named “Gaslight” and its 1940s film adaptations. Its usage refers to psychologically manipulating a person to the point of that person questioning reality in an attempt to believe the deceiver’s story.

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As I left one of the July 2018 URTeC talks that somehow spoke to the future of energy development and/or sustainable development, I overheard two young professionals in conversation. One said to the other something like, “Is another word for this … brainwashing?”

I was delighted with such questioning and aware minds, and I entered into a conversation with them. Their view of the future is very middle-of-the-road: hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, will be the transition to a more renewable-based energy future, but the rate of that change is unknown and dependent on factors way beyond three people talking.

This column was already in my mind on how to follow AAPG President Denise Cox’s column in the July EXPLORER concerning “sustainable energy development” (or similar phrases we hear). But their questioning of a pro-hydrocarbon talk that spoke to the good that this industry does drove home a point to me. How do we tell our stories, and how have we done so in the past? The term “brainwashing” reminded me of the more modern word “gaslighting,” a term derived from the 1938 play named “Gaslight” and its 1940s film adaptations. Its usage refers to psychologically manipulating a person to the point of that person questioning reality in an attempt to believe the deceiver’s story.

Well, that is not what I heard in the talk! AAPG and other industry leaders, in wanting to encourage our scientists, engineers and the general public, wish to tell the many good stories. That is what I heard, but since time has exposed me to some less positive energy stories, I could take the talk in stride.

Mastering the Story

While some of you know my past as a sedimentary geologist interested in reservoir dynamics and improved recovery, both in industry and later as a college professor, about 23 years ago I became hooked on the history of oilfield waste and its impact in the United States. I have dedicated myself to finding and saving as much publicly available documentation as possible on the history. I met my first attorneys after 10 years of this work. Attorneys, both defense and plaintiff, are masters of the story. These experiences profoundly shaped me in watching both myself and others tell stories, including litigation attorneys and those hired as their experts, and those telling larger public stories about fossil fuels and the environment.

How has the hydrocarbon industry historically told its stories and addressed issues that are still represented in the modern sustainable development goals? Several goals are just part of the more basic concept of taking care of the environment and properly managing our industry wastes. So, like any good geologist that has collected a lot of data (documents), I reviewed many 20th century and early 21st century hydrocarbon industry “high-level” writings. These historical interpretations or stories are of a broader nature that generally reflect in part what continues to be expressed in modern sustainable development presentations and writings of the industry.

My reviewed industry writings from 1926 and onward included technical journal articles, trade journal articles, law journal articles and publicly available company documents.

Industry people told environment-related stories in a variety of ways:

  • Descriptive (more technical) writings of technology or techniques used at that time to prevent “unacceptable pollution” (and this changing standard is quite obvious over the decades)
  • Descriptive writings of the environment-related regulatory frameworks that existed during different time frames and how they were changing
  • Observational (more “big-picture”) writings on what the industry was doing and how much money was being spent to prevent unacceptable pollution
  • Observational writings about how society was looking unfavorably or not appreciating the work and money put forth by industry for social development, environmental protection or pollution prevention
  • Observational writings of how environmental and social expectations were changing for the industry
  • More futuristic plans on how industry was changing to meet regulatory and society’s environmental expectations

By the 1990s and into the early 21st century, general hydrocarbon industry articles and company documents began molding the sustainable development concept. At this point in my readings, though, my head was spinning around from seeing much of history being repeated over and over. I was finished with my research. I realized I do not have to tell you about sustainable energy development. AAPG President Cox did a great job in her EXPLORER column. If you want more, possibly your company has worked on this, or you can just Google the term. And if you do not want more, fall back on common sense. Just do the right thing to the best of your ability as it concerns the environment and the societies where you conduct your business.

AAPG was founded around the concept of good geological science applied by professionals to oil and natural gas development. Our origins in 1916-18 happened when the world was watching petroleum help determine a world war’s outcome. Hydrocarbons are, and will continue to be, important to meet the world’s energy demands for many decades. But we must continually reduce fossil fuels’ impact – something this industry has been doing for about 100 years (at times too slowly for some). Many people in every industry generation thought that their environmental demands were almost too much, just too big – but looking back, they never were, really. And mistakes were made due to not heeding changing standards or society’s demands. Now those demands seem even bigger as we consider not just the day-to-day work of conventional and unconventional resource development, but the staggering demands of our worldwide community. We are ready for such a challenge, each of us and collectively. We know history, and we know ourselves.

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