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Two New Reviews

Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change

Bryan Lovell
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 2010
ISBN: 978-0521-19701-4 (hbk); 978-0-521-14559-6 (pbk)
List price: £55.00 (hbk); £19.99 (pbk)
212 pp

LovellThe three main problems with climate change are: it is multidisciplinary and few people have the scientific expertise to understand all its interwoven strands; second, anthropogenic climate change is not universally accepted and third, the world is now beginning to suffer from “climate change fatigue”.

Bryan Lovell is well placed to overcome these problems. He has had a distinguished career first as a lecturer, then as an oil company geologist and latterly as a senior manager with BP. In the late 1970s he was a parliamentary candidate, and energy spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Party. Dr Lovell is also President Designate of the Society, and it is worth noting that the Society has played a major role in the climate change debate, convening a key conference in 2003 in which senior oil company executives participated, and arranging as part of this year’s Shell lecture series an important talk on carbon capture and storage by Martin Blunt.

The book addresses the challenge facing the world, which will continue to need hydrocarbon products for many years to come, but cannot afford to ignore the effect that use of these products has on climate. At the outset Lovell poses six fundamental questions, asking, for example, whether oil company shareholders will be willing to finance expensive carbon-capture schemes, and whether governments can be persuaded to give the same level of priority to reducing per capita carbon output as to health or education services.

Lovell’s analysis of the problem is addressed from a variety of standpoints. Chapter 1 describes the growing scientific unease that led to the Kyoto summit of 1997. Chapter 2 is a detailed review of the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum) event of 55Ma, chosen because the unfolding of this event can be detailed with great precision. Very large volumes of carbon were released into the atmosphere over a period not exceeding 20,000 years, and the book discusses in some detail the consequences and possible trigger mechanisms of this. Chapter 3 is an account of the pivotal confrontation between BP and ExxonMobil at the Geological Society’s Petroleum Group conference in 2003, which Lovell identifies as the first sign of a convergence of views between European and American oil companies.

The remainder of the book addresses the role that oil companies might play in the carbon challenge. Lovell is a strong advocate of carbon capture and storage, which is technically feasible - but which cannot be implemented without the forceful involvement of government and ‘the Establishment’ in creating a strong regulatory framework. The final chapter is a ‘personal coda’ in which the author makes some interesting connections between rocks, Romans and reservoirs.

This is a thought-provoking book, which incorporates much of the latest research. But does the author provide convincing answers to the six questions of the Introduction? Can oil companies transform their role from villains to heroes? Will government respond effectively to the challenge? Will the public be willing to pay for the cost of carbon capture? I am sceptical; but read the book - and make up your own mind.

Don Hallett

Death of an Ocean: A Geological Borders Ballad

Euan Clarkson and Brian Upton
Published by: Dunedin Academic Press
Publication date: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-906716-02-8
List price: £25.00
210 pp

ClarksonAs a long-standing Southern Uplands devotee I was intrigued to see this book describing the closure of Iapetus. It is written by two geologists with abundant knowledge of the area and is well produced, printed on good quality paper and beautifully illustrated. On reading the book my overall impression was favourable, but with some misgivings.

The area covered is the Borders region of Scotland rather than the Southern Uplands as a single entity. This seemed rather an odd choice and leads to the authors’ having to add disclaimers that some of the geology they describe is outside the area under consideration. The authors also sit on the fence regarding some of the tectonic interpretations, even where recent work has clarified the position. A popular book of this kind can allow more certainty, especially when presenting the 'expert view'.

As I read on I realised that the authors had set themselves a gargantuan task. The Southern Uplands requires the integration of many geoscience disciplines such as sedimentology, structural geology, biostratigraphy and petrography. The consequence of writing for a lay audience is that each of these areas has to be explained. The book therefore takes several excursions to cover topics such as plate tectonics theory, magma genesis and marine plankton. Diagrams include a section through the entire Earth and illustrations of modern plankton. As the authors cover so much background I think that it would have been useful to include references to some accessible books that explain aspects of the Earth sciences to the general public, rather than the more 'local' list at the back of the book.

The authors also discuss the history of research into the geology of the region. The contributions made by Lapworth, Peach and Horne among others cannot be underestimated, but the history tends to make the overall narrative of the closure of the ocean somewhat disjointed. Including the Carboniferous and the Ice Age makes sense in terms of completeness but does not fit with supposed emphasis of the book. But I imagine that 'Geology of the Borders' would have sounded less enticing than ‘Death of an Ocean’ (a title first given to an Nature Conservancy Council booklet on the same subject, written many years ago by, I believe, one Ted Nield).

So - at whom is the book aimed? It isn’t an excursion guide, although it strays into this territory on occasion when discussing turbidites - a case of too much detail. It isn’t sufficiently advanced or referenced to allow an entry into the regional geology, and therefore falls into ‘keen amateur' territory, with a ‘coffee table’ feel. Given the book's emphasis, that table is most likely to be situated in Edinburgh.

Tim Needham