Environmentalists, Looking For Oil

By Julia Wellner, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Despite a lingering downturn in the oil industry, which has led to the loss of 100,000 jobs in the United States alone, most of my students are studying geology with an eye towards a career in the industry. This is an understandable choice. Houston is the hub of the world’s petroleum industry.

In Houston, it is likely that the person in front of you at the deli studies the same type of sediment-transport modelling you do, or that your child’s baseball team is entirely made up of families with parents who have all been on the same field trip to the middle of nowhere Utah.

In addition, the jobs also pay well right out of college, with geoscientists in the petroleum industry starting with salaries over $100,000.  Many of the classes offered in my department, included those that I teach, are geared towards the skills specifically needed in the industry, and many of our students are recruited by companies interviewing on campus.

With that said, most of my own training and research is about glacial history and how it relates to climate and sea-level changes. The graduate students I supervise study the sedimentary signature of glacial changes in Antarctica; many of them complete their own field research during travels to the south.

The experience of working in Antarctica has a lifelong impact on most of those lucky enough to have the opportunity. Environmental change does not occur on the scale of a single season.  But students or tourists visiting the region gain an appreciation for the vast areas that appear to be pristine but which research shows to be changing at an accelerating rate.

When they complete their graduate degrees though, most then go to the work in the oil industry. They are, after all, learning the same basic skills as other geologists, and there just aren’t that many jobs for glacial geologists in Houston.

I am often asked if I am disappointed to see my graduate students go to the oil industry.  No!  I am proud of them and, moreover, I believe that more geoscientists with such backgrounds will be good for the industry, and all of us.

The icebreaking ship we work on in the Antarctic burns 6,000 gallons of fuel per day. We all take airplanes to get there. At home, we heat our homes, drive or rely on those who do, and rely on plastics and petrochemical products, at least to some extent. We need the oil industry now and in the future, just like the rest of the population, even though we understand the impact of burning fossil fuels on global climate.

More than just recognizing that all of us need the oil industry, though, I believe the industry needs my students and more like them. With the impact of climate change forefront in their minds, they will automatically balance choices in oil exploration and production with a broad set of concerns.

Maybe they will push to move away from tar sands and towards a more sustainable option.  Maybe they will think about groundwater when a pipeline is being designed, rather than after construction has already begun. And maybe their backgrounds can help build trust with communities worried about fracking in their backyards when they explain that the cleaner-burning gas it will generate is, on the whole, an environmental benefit.

Companies, governments and schools often focus on diversity in hiring and recruiting. That diversity includes race and ethnicity, gender and physical abilities, among others.

Diversity with respect to environmental backgrounds has a role to play in the energy industry of the future.

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