Cutting edge: David Macdonald

March 16, 2001

Exploration of oil may have peaked in the 20th century, but petroleum geologists are still needed for environmental research and to predict the effects of global warming.

Many United States oil-belt cities have murals depicting oil exploration. The sequence always starts with granite-jawed men standing in the savannah, holding geological hammers while examining a rock. These are the petroleum geologists, the oil finders, part Indiana Jones, part Professor Challenger. Given Sheikh Yamani's recent comments on the end of the oil century, and the green re-branding of British Petroleum, one might be forgiven for thinking that petroleum geologists were doomed dinosaurs rather than challenging discoverers. Fortunately, most of these assumptions are outdated.

Geologists are not just the lonely progenitors of the process; they are essential from initial exploration, through appraisal of discoveries, to the management of production throughout the life of a field. We describe the structure of the earth and hypothesise a sequence of events for the origin of that structure.

The flipside of the heroic view of progress embodied in the murals is the inevitability of the desecration of that virgin savannah by oil exploitation. It is unarguable that there was appalling environmental mismanagement until recently. For proof, see the gusher -the great cliche of oil finding -that will certainly figure on the mural.

In the circumstances, it might be thought perverse to suggest that the future of our profession lies in environmental research, but that is what I believe, for three main reasons. First, hydrocarbons underpin the world economy. This means that the oil industry will survive for the foreseeable future and will need petroleum geologists to improve the efficiency of finding and producing the oil and gas. Improved recovery could extend the life of the North Sea far beyond the current horizon of 2020.

Second, the future of electricity generation probably lies with gas-turbine power stations. Demand for natural gas, which is a relatively clean fuel, will increase. Research on natural gas has lagged behind that on oil, but since gas is stable to high temperatures, the potential range of crustal habitats is greater than for oil.

Third, the oil industry has a good record of sponsoring environmental research. Much of our understanding of sedimentary environments has been sponsored by oil companies. In the United Kingdom, support of research and training is worth more than £10 million a year to geology alone. Support could equally be given to research on environmental change. The big question for society is not so much that global warming is happening, but what the effects will be. Predictions such as increased storminess derive from climate models and are based on quite short-time series of data. Long-time series data are needed from the continental shelves to assess the effects of climate perturbations. Oil companies could gather such data, and petroleum geologists have the skills to analyse it. Then we could have a proper debate about how we are to power our society.

One final misrepresentation from the mural: those granite-jawed chaps are just as likely to be women. The granite jaw is optional.

David Macdonald, professor of petroleum geology, University of Aberdeen.

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