Product has been added to the basket

Beyond the deep water horizon

Dr Bryan Lovell, President, in oil industry mode.

Adler deWind interviews Society President, Dr Bryan Lovell .

Geoscientist 20.10 October 2010

AdW: The final sealing of the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout will be followed by no doubt extensive litigation and recrimination. But it has already faded now from the news. As an oil man, and lately one converted to the need to cut emissions, what do you think the main lessons have been?

BL: “You’re right, I am or at least was an oilman; but you don’t have to have been on a rig to recognise that loss of life dwarfs all other considerations. After that, we have the reckoning - environmental impact, costs and responsibilities. Yet these can only be made when critical evidence is to hand, and that is clearly not yet true. We do not yet (September 2010) have the full story of what happened on the rig itself, or at the blowout preventer, and we are only in the first stages of a $500 million research programme into environmental impact. That research will doubtless include a comparison of this human-induced escape of oil with natural seepage, which scarcely anybody ever mentioned during hour upon hour of speculation about perceptions and personalities.”

AdW: Are these natural seeps really that large – significant – then?

BL: “Oh yes. Oilfields leak naturally - about 600,000 tonnes of oil a year escapes into the seas from natural seeps, and an estimated quarter of that flows from various places on the Gulf of Mexico seabed – something like 400 tonnes a day. For comparison, that’s an order of magnitude less than the rate of flow from the point source at Deepwater Horizon. Now – a spaceman visiting the Gulf today - a spaceman who knows his geology but not our history - might ask why we are looking for high-cost oil and gas there, rather than drilling much more cheaply onshore in, say, Iran. As a veteran of early deepwater Atlantic drilling offshore Ireland, and a former Middle East exploration manager for BP, I’m happy to have a crack at that question.

“Only part of the Earth was formerly covered by the Tethys Oceans, whose geological evolution led, over tens of millions of years, to the generation and preservation of abundant oil in what is now the Middle East. By the 1980s access to that oil could be gained only on post-imperial terms, which was of limited interest to many oil companies. And so we had the move into deepwater Atlantic exploration, and subsequent successes offshore Angola, Brazil — and in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Now – the oil from Deepwater Horizon may not be washing across to Cancún in Mexico, where the climate summit is being held later this year, but we may be sure the environmental reaction will be. And it occurs to me that during the weeks that oil from Deepwater Horizon escaped into the sea, across the globe the human race was continuing to add to the hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon that it has already dumped into the atmosphere (deliberately, not accidentally) as we burn fossil carbon. And where did all that mighty handy carbon come from? Such places as the Gulf of Mexico and many others, in the form of coal, gas and oil.”

AdW: So – you’re saying - much bigger quantities, yet completely invisible?

BL: “Right. One lot of fossil carbon, the bit that has been spilt from Deepwater Horizon, has been obvious. The invisible and odourless carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by mankind burning fossil carbon is not at all obvious. In the atmosphere, it is measured in traces: if it had a smell, it might catch the attention of a springer spaniel, but might still not alert a human being. Yet its effects are significant. The dog is barking, and we need to act now. The response to Deepwater Horizon needs to be seen in this context.”

AdW: “So is the mudslinging over Deepwater Horizon in your view a distraction? Even – dare one say - a diversion?

BL: “A distraction, certainly! But let me emphasise once again that the loss of life does dwarf other considerations and makes some of the subsequent witchhunts look even more unpleasant in retrospect. As for the environmental significance, with every sympathy for those affected locally round the Gulf, let’s now get back to the real global issue, back to the barking dog. An early cliché of the Climate Change literature was the one that went: “we are carrying out an uncontrolled experiment with the planet”. Well, that is no longer true. We have the control now, and it’s in the geological record. Since that classic Norris and Rohl paper on the 55 Ma warming event (PETM) in Nature in October 1999, we’ve been able to see quite clearly what happens when you dump carbon into the atmosphere at the rate and volume of the past couple of centuries – significant global warming. The temperature of the deep ocean waters rises by several degrees centigrade. Global sea level rises by several metres even without any contribution from melting ice. Acidification of the oceans contributes to widespread extinction of marine life, accompanied by widespread extinctions on land. The “natural” experiment has been repeated several times on planet Earth.

AdW: “What caused those earlier big releases of carbon – don’t we need to know that before we get too excited about our own activities?”

BL: “We are still working out the details of the triggers for those carbon blasts in the past, specifically the interaction of the astronomically controlled periodic Milankovitch cycles with Earth-controlled episodic events. The episodic events may be volcanic, or may be caused by the effects at Earth’s surface of the putative hot blobs in mantle convection that are a particular favourite of mine. But regardless of all those interesting remaining questions, we know already that we are well on the way ourselves to creating our very own carbon blast, just as impressive as that at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. We know what we have to do – we should stop pulling the carbon trigger, stop taking carbon out of the ground as soon as we reasonably can. My old buddies in the oil industry won’t like that idea one little bit, but they’ll like the prospect of being paid twice, once to take the carbon out and again to put it back in the form of carbon dioxide.

AdW: Is that change of heart - about releasing carbon - likely, do you think? Or are we just going to see the wall coming, but not be clever enough to do anything about it in time?

BL: “We can be clever all right, but can we be convinced enough to act? George W. Bush talked about the USA’s addiction to oil, China and India depend on coal. Shaking off the fossil-fuel habit isn’t going to be easy or quick, but in the meantime, we can help ourselves by applying the odd patch or two. Once most of us are convinced by the message of the past, we will find that we have an unlikely ally in – the oil business. The oil industry can pump carbon dioxide given off, say, by coal-fired power stations, into safe underground storage. Unlike Deepwater Horizon, this uses routine technology. Yes, it will be opposed by some (for offering succour to the villainous fossil-fuel industries); but coal will continue to supply much of the world’s electricity for years. Big Oil should prepare to act on the heroic scale required to make a dent in the problem of carbon release.”
  • Bryan Lovell is Senior Research Fellow in Earth Sciences at Cambridge University. He is author of Challenged by Carbon: the Oil Industry and Climate Change (CUP).