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Petroleum geoscientists…wanted!

John Warburton asserts that a new generation is needed to steward the transition to a clean energy future

Warburton, J., Petroleum geoscientists…wanted! Geoscientist 29 (8), 9, 2019; Download the pdf here

WarburtonI read with great pleasure the article Speaking up for Geoscience (Geoscientist 28(11), 9, 2018), by my respected friend and colleague Mike Simmons. Mike recounts how the resource industries have done their brand quality little service though poor communications with the societies that they serve. This he argues has led to a perception that these industries are directly or indirectly exacerbating environmental damage.

Given such negative branding it is unsurprising that school and university graduates may have limited aspiration to pursue careers in resources or in the geological sciences. This is indeed a bleak backdrop against which Mike calls on society and industry to work together to encourage new young professionals to take-up careers in industrial geosciences.

Thirst for petroleum

I have been involved in the petroleum industry since bidding farewell to university in the early 1980s. I have experienced first-hand how petroleum companies take extraordinary measures to reduce environmental harm while winning precious resources.  Such measures are often openly demanded by vocal shareholders and activists.

Technological and ideological advances continue to enable petroleum resources to be exploited from increasingly challenging settings. For example, petroleum exploitation has progressed from onshore to offshore; shallow to deep and ultra-deep-water; conventional to unconventional reservoirs; sedimentary basins to crystalline basement. Furthermore, new sources of petroleum are under consideration (such as hydrates, sub-Arctic basins, deep-basin centres) as the World’s insatiable thirst for a petroleum-based economy and lifestyle grows despite some projections proclaiming imminent production decline.

Addiction transition

Anathema to our addiction to petroleum is the desire instantaneously to recover from it.

Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani was Saudi Minister of Petroleum & Mineral Resources from 1962 to 86 and an OPEC minister for 25 years. In 1973, he predicted that alternative sources of energy would eventually compete commercially with petroleum products famously remarking that "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones”.

It is in the context of a measured (rather than an unrealistic, immediate) transition away from a lifestyle addicted to petroleum where I see the next generation of prospective young petroleum professionals finding their voice.

There is a current and projected global emphasis on the role of natural gas, compared with oil and coal. Combustion of petroleum in the gaseous phase bears substantially lower carbon footprint than oil or coal. Advances in production technology increased daily shale gas production in the USA from about 2 billion cubic feet (‘Bcf’) in 2007 to 50 Bcf in 2015 with an attendant 10% decrease in annual CO2 emissions*.  Furthermore, petroleum companies are tentatively but increasingly experimenting with renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind) in an attempt to curtail their carbon emissions. For example, solar panels can generate electricity for powering oil field pump jacks that formerly relied on burning of diesel.

Young professionals

Society needs a next generation of petroleum geoscientists to steward the transition from our fossil-fuel-addicted lifestyle to one predominantly reliant on renewables. Only with a profound understanding of petroleum geology can those elements to be replaced entirely by renewable energy sources be identified and the technological breakthroughs implemented in a sensible timeframe.

Perhaps petroleum geoscience is not so ‘dirty’ after all.

Professor John Warburton is Non-Executive Director of Senex Energy Ltd and of Empire Energy Group Ltd and a visiting Professor at the School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds, UK; Email:  [email protected]

* Energy in Depth Oct, 27 2015, EIA May 2016, Monthly Energy Review