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Oily War

Bryan Lovell asks: are we fighting over oil that should never be used?  First published in Media Monitor, May 2003 Geoscientist

As war intensified on the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Geological Society found itself close to world events. On the evening of Wednesday 26 March, former President of the Society Richard Hardman was appearing on BBC2 - arguing with remorseless and elegant clarity over maps spread out in the Lower Library at Burlington House - that the war in Iraq was about oil*. More than that, he suggested, “Gulf 2” might in the course of history come to be seen as one in a series of such conflicts, as demand for oil begins to exceed supply in the early 21st Century.

Shortly before this programme was aired, our current President, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, was appearing - very much live - in the Lecture Theatre, summing up the first-ever public debate between BP and ExxonMobil on Coping with Climate Change, as part of a three-day conference organised by the Petroleum Group.

John Lawton, Chief Executive of the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) passionately stated the context of that debate in the meeting’s concluding address. He defined a spectrum of opinion, running from the damned (who denied the reality of climate change caused by man) to the righteous - the greater part of the audience of scientists before him. The oil companies lay well over to the darker, warmer end of the spectrum, though with BP slightly nearer to the light of salvation than ExxonMobil. The “righteous” in this debate would say that the oil over which the world is now fighting should never be produced because of the damage its use would inflict on the planet.

Everyone who sat through the three days of Coping with Climate Change could feel the seriousness with which, in all their diversity, the scientists put their case. Equally obvious was their determination to mitigate further damage caused by the atmospheric dumping of fossil carbon. But what of the oil companies, who are so much a part of the problem they can hardly but form part of any solution?

Moody-Stuart suggested that a company such as Shell (of which he was lately Chairman and Chief Executive) would invest good money on the strength of data of the quality published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Frank Sprow, Vice President of Exxon Mobil, stated during the debate that he accepted the case for anthropogenic climate change made by the IPCC.

Sprow was directly challenged from the audience to act on the logic of that position. Would ExxonMobil emulate BP, in taking responsibility for not only the company's own CO2 emission, but also for the (ten times) greater quantities emitted by their customers in using ExxonMobil products? Sprow said yes, they did take that responsibility and had done so for a decade.

So - are energy companies and governments alike moving away from dependence on fossil fuels as soon as they possibly can? The short answer is no. There appear to be two main reasons why this is so.

Customers (for which read “voters”) find fossil fuels mighty useful. Even if they did not, they may be unconvinced that they are endangering the planet. Early research results (reported at the meeting by Clair Gough, of UMIST’s Tyndall Centre) showed that there was denial of anthropogenic climate change, not least among groups with access to good information.

Carrot not stick

David Jenkins, former Technical Director of BP, proposed a government-led solution that tackled the carbon issue directly by offering incentives instead of penalties. He suggested that even if the citizens of the United Kingdom accepted that recent warming trends in climate were attributable to human activities, they could hardly be distressed at the prospect of milder winters. For Lawton such complacency in the population could arise only from dangerous ignorance. People must be made aware of the true damage that will be caused by the uncontrolled world-wide experiment on which we are already engaged.

The meeting spelled out the huge scale of the problem of dealing with climate change. This was an opportunity to view the issues from many different angles, going well beyond science familiar to most Fellows of the Society. Please study the abstracts and extended abstracts on for a sense of the scope and quality of the papers. Note the strong emphasis on the sequestration of the fossil carbon as a prime solution to the problem.

It was in the debate and related contributions that the societal battle lines were writ large and clear. In one camp we have coal, oil and gas - fuels that have powered parts of the world to high levels of material comfort. The rest - the greater part of the world's population - would also like such standards of living. Meanwhile, citizens of wealthy countries commit acts of civil disobedience to maintain low fuel prices and routinely expect cheap air fares. Governments mobilise armies to acquire or to defend sources of supply of oil.

On the other hand we are realising more and more vividly the danger of our uncontrolled global experiment. This planet is the only living space available to us. As Lawton remarked: "At least you can choose whether to smoke tobacco”. Science claims that the planet is entering a state of potentially dangerous instability. This claim is now beginning to go well beyond mere consensus. There are now calls for the most urgent action to avoid global disasters. Even the most sceptical should start listening when ExxonMobil admits that there is a problem.

But what are companies such as ExxonMobil and BP to do? Sprow said that 87% of the carbon emissions resulting from ExxonMobil's activities come from the customer, not the company. Greg Coleman, Vice-President of BP, reported comparable figures. ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and others provide products that many societies consider essential to their economic and social well-being. These companies are funded by shareholders - who are also their customers. These people, under advice from financial analysts and others, might well withdraw their support were the company to switch rapidly to providing less convenient and less profitable forms of energy.

Entrenched opponents of the oil companies might argue that the sooner they went out of business the better. At least one flaw in this argument is the threat it carries for potentially crucial allies of the environmentalists. Oil companies that strive for low-carbon virtue may become more vulnerable than those who simply pump oil and gas. Coleman told the meeting that only next year would BP hope to break even on its major long-term investment in solar energy. This leads us to the paradoxical position of both BP and ExxonMobil: big oil might accept IPCC, and yet predict that fossil fuels will form an essential part of energy provision through to the middle of this Century.

To Lawton, and apparently to many in his enthusiastic audience at Burlington House, passivity in the face of that paradox is unacceptable. If convulsions in the energy market are required to prevent the catastrophe of unchecked climate change, then let it be. As the discussion continued, echoes of an earlier environmental movement came to mind. Perhaps it is the subtitle of E F Schumacher's 20th Century classic Small is Beautiful that will echo through the 21st: A study of economics as if people mattered.

Beyond economics lies something man cannot change: there was only one Tethys. Earth's abundant and easily accessible reserves of oil and gas are disproportionately located in the sediments formed in that Mesozoic ocean. Access to these reserves is controlled not by the likes of BP and ExxonMobil, but by giant state oil companies. These companies are controlled by governments that have little motivation to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. This at least they have in common with the citizens of that quintessential oil town, Midland, Texas, former home of George W Bush.

Commit, regulate, develop

What should be done? In his summary of the BP-ExxonMobil debate, Moody-Stuart made three points (see GeoNews InBrief). Oil companies should come together to agree that CO2 emissions should be held at the lower end of the IPCC range of predictions. Governments should set a framework for at least some channelling of markets that will achieve the necessary transition to low-carbon energy sources. The developing world must be brought along in full partnership.

Climate will change, possibly rapidly and unpredictably, as a result of actions already taken. Those actions must now be checked, without incapacitating organisations that will have to form part of the solution: not least oil companies. We have to balance those risks.

Coping with Climate Change set out the record on climate change, the impacts of climate change and some solutions to the problems created. Perhaps for some of us it was an encouragement to cease wringing our hands and start working urgently to help those already engaged in the huge task that lies ahead.

*The War for Oil – BBC2 The Money Programme Special 1930 26.3.03.