Monday, 14 January 2013

That Time I Took Advice From a Petroleum Engineer

One of the most important conversations I ever had came about entirely by accident.

One sunny afternoon in the early 1990s I found myself sharing a picnic table with a graduate student from Stanford University's Petroleum Engineering Department (the university changed the department's name in 2006 to Energy Resources Engineering). It was my senior year and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was still a recent memory. I was understandably curious to learn why someone would choose to pursue this career path.

"Petroleum is amazing stuff," he said. "Nature has given us these amazing long-chain hydrocarbons. We can break them apart, recombine them and make almost anything. Burning it is probably the least creative thing we can do!"

"That may be," I responded, but those long-chains hydrocarbons are also a great energy source, and we seem to be burning an awful lot of them, when we're not spilling them in the ocean."

"Yes," he conceded, "But we don't have to! We can make electricity any number of ways, and there are plenty of other things we can burn to generate heat. Besides, it's better for the environment.  So let's use those other resources for energy and do something more useful with the petroleum."

And so here I am, 20-odd years later. As a justification for his chosen career path, that petroleum engineer's argument may have been self-serving. After all, the vast majority of the petroleum that goes to refineries is still burnt as fuel - only a minority of petroleum engineers get to play with the substance as a chemical feedstock.

But he described very nicely the rationale behind everything I've done since then.

Burning fossil fuels for energy is easy, but it isn't particularly smart. Making a transition to a low-carbon future means finding ways to live a satisfying life without imposing unacceptable long term costs on families, communities, and the planet. I founded Carbon Clear nearly eight years ago to help accelerate that transition.  Since then, we've helped hundreds of companies improve their response to the challenges posed by climate change.

I wonder whether that aspiring petroleum engineer remembers me or that casual afternoon conversation at Stanford all those years ago.

I certainly remember him.

Related posts:
Making Renewables Work: Understanding Energy Density

Airlines, The EU ETS and Biofuels

Peak Oil: Will We Freeze or Roast?