Why We Matter
- Scott Wilson (Ryder Scott Company)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- March 2019
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 55 - 56
- 2019. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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Special Section: The Value and Future of Petroleum Engineering
When worldwide oil and gas consumption reached record levels yet again in 2017, SPE members were there when it counted, helping to generate more light and power for billions of people across the world. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which serves as a proxy for quality of life, shows that populations that consume more fossil fuels are better educated, wealthier, and live longer (Fig. 1). The greatest incremental benefit comes to those who are lifted out of poverty by their first access to cheap energy (http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/energising-human-development).
For more than five generations, the oil and gas industry has helped raise living standards; protected environments by replacing firewood with natural gas and propane; and provided food to hungry people by increasing farming productivity, transportation, refrigeration, and packaging. Before hydrocarbons, the great whales were almost hunted to extinction to provide oil for lamps. Before the use of hydrocarbons, Europe had cut down almost all of its trees to provide heat. Author Michael Crichton postulated that, before internal combustion engines were common, one of the greatest environmental challenges of the future would have been finding a way to dispose of mountains of horse manure. Life before hydrocarbons was much harder, and the HDI curve shows that, for those who have no access to hydrocarbons, life is still very challenging indeed.
Without the products provided by the industry (shelter, transportation, clothing, heating, and cooling), populations were vulnerable not only to extreme weather events, but also to the effects of everyday weather. With this strong record of benefitting mankind, it would seem natural that those in the industry could rest on their accomplishments. But notice the shape of the curve as the development index approaches 1 and incremental consumption does not necessarily improve human flourishing. Have wealthy populations reached the point of diminishing returns, forgetting what life was like without fossil fuels?
In 2018, the residents of Colorado voted on a new regulation proposed by environmental activists that, ostensibly in the name of safety, would have pushed the oil and gas industry out of the state by cutting off access to future drilling locations (https://dcgop.org/ proposition112/). Before the vote, I decided to walk the streets of my neighborhood to make the case for fossil fuels, asking each neighbor how he or she felt about effectively banning the oil and gas industry. Some, I quickly realized, were motivated by fear and beliefs not rooted in reality. To them, this sinister new trend known as “fracking” was responsible for sinkholes, pipeline leaks, all earthquakes, and inclement weather. While each person with whom I spoke was polite and talked with me until I had worn out my welcome, this vocal minority seemed uninterested in information that might challenge their beliefs.
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