I’ve written this article from the perspective of my 42-year-long journey as a member of the AAPG and my experience working as a geologist and hydrogeologist during that time. Starting at my beginning, I was born and raised in the picturesque Piedmont region of North Carolina, where my affinity for geology was kindled by childhood trips, led by a neighborhood seasoned “rockhound” to old mines in the area. These excursions set the foundation for my lifelong fascination with mineralogy and geology.
I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in geology and then moved to New Mexico to obtain my Master of Science degree, focusing on inorganic geochemistry. As fate would have it, my aspiration for a career in “hard rock” minerals exploration faced an unforeseen downturn with the decline of uranium exploration and production in the United States. As I finished work on my degree, a fortuitously timed offer from Shell Offshore Inc. to work as a petroleum exploration geologist in New Orleans set me on a trajectory I had not initially envisioned. I enjoyed my tenure of a few years at Shell, which provided me invaluable insights into sedimentary geology and related disciplines and equipped me with skills that proved vital in my transition a few years later to a new realm of geology.
My Journey through Environmental Geoscience
The heat and humidity of New Orleans were a constant bother to me and the mountainous terrain I had left behind continued to tug at my heartstrings, so I moved to southern California in early 1987 to redirect my geological focus on environmental consulting. This enabled my appreciation and enthusiasm for geological investigation to dovetail with a commitment to addressing environmental concerns.
Petroleum-related contamination was an initial focal point for my environmental work efforts. Leaking underground storage tank sites with fuel releases had become a concern, with benzene and naphthalene taking center stage as human health risk drivers. Groundwater resources were not at the forefront of my concern in my early years as an exploration geologist, but my transition to the role of an environmental geologist and hydrogeologist made me acutely aware of the potential consequences of our actions on groundwater systems.
My environmental narrative expanded to encompass methyl tertiary-butyl ether and other fuel oxygenates, shedding light on the intricate interplay between petroleum products and ecological well-being. It also became evident to me that petroleum exploration and production activities, improper well construction and inadequate abandonment practices could lead to groundwater contamination – the legacy of poor well management and produced water disposal practices continues to resonate today.
Over time, my work-related journey through environmental science led to my involvement in assessments and remediation of plating facilities tainted by hexavalent chromium, dry cleaning establishments tainted by tetrachloroethylene and industrial facilities underlain by groundwater contaminated with PCE, trichloroethylene and other contaminants. Vapor intrusion into occupied buildings emerged over time as a primary concern, bridging sites contaminated by petroleum and chlorinated solvents. The more recent emergence of per- and poly-fluorinated alkylated substances underscores the dynamic nature of the environmental challenges we face.
Addressing Our Environmental Legacy
Amid this narrative, the urgency of my environmental legacy question reverberates. As I sit in my southern California home writing this article, our first-ever U.S. National Weather Service tropical storm warning is underway due to the trajectory of former hurricane, now Tropical Storm Hilary. Such climatic events force my contemplation of the impact of climate change. The recent devastating fires in Maui and an unprecedented blizzard alert and blizzard this past February for southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains near me, are in my opinion, also vivid signals of the link between climatic extremes and human-induced alterations in our environment. An immense weight of scientific evidence compels candid acknowledgment of our petroleum industry’s role in shaping the climate change narrative. The rise in average global temperature, surge of greenhouse gases, and concomitant climatic upheaval are part of the tapestry connecting petroleum and climate change.
I believe addressing the petroleum industry’s environmental legacy requires collective action combining regulatory measures, technological innovations and strategic shifts. In the spirit of moving forward, the petroleum industry has a critical role to play in mitigating its impact. Regulatory interventions have driven industry-wide changes, fostering adoption of cleaner practices. Technological advancements, from more efficient drilling techniques to emissions reduction technologies, have propelled the industry toward a greener future. Energy companies are diversifying their portfolios, investing in solar, wind and other renewable ventures, not only reducing the industry’s environmental impact but also underscoring adaptability and forward thinking.
Another promising avenue in the journey toward sustainability is carbon capture and storage. Real-world CCS projects have shown potential, though challenges remain in scaling up and ensuring long-term effectiveness. Collaboration among energy companies, governmental bodies and environmental organizations remains pivotal to achieving meaningful change. As we navigate the complex interplay between petroleum production and use, groundwater resources and climate change, it is imperative that we continue to explore and implement strategies that mitigate our industry’s impact on the environment. The ongoing mission to plug orphan wells, re-abandon leaking wells, explore CCS and transition away from petroleum combustion signifies a conscientious stride toward an improved environmental legacy.
The Role of DEG
The AAPG’s Division of Environmental Geosciences has admirably championed these causes, fostering open discourse and insightful presentations. As the current torchbearer of the DEG’s presidency, I’m committed to advancing these dialogues and facilitating informed decisions and actionable change. Our petroleum industry’s ultimate environmental legacy is yet to be etched, and I expect to be retiring soon, but the journey for our industry will continue. I urge our membership to shape the legacy such that we forge a sustainable path for generations to come.
I’ll end this by acknowledging the thoughts and opinions I’ve shared above are mine only. I welcome your shared thoughts and insights.
In closing, I will thank our membership for permitting me to serve as your 2023-24 DEG president. I’ll also acknowledge and voice my appreciation of the service of my fellow DEG officers: Mattias Imhof, president-elect (2023-24); Sherilyn Williams-Stroud, vice president (2023-25); Disnahir Pinto, secretary-treasurer (2023-25) and Autumn Haagsma, editor (2023-25).