Arguing with Rocks

April 17, 2011

Review of: Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change, by Bryan Lovell. Cambridge University Press (2009)

This review was first published in International Affairs Volume 87, Issue 2,pages 467–520, March 2011

By David L. Levy

You cannot argue with rocks. This is the crux of Bryan Lovell’s argument in Challenged by Carbon, a book that combines a geological case for taking climate change seriously with an insider’s tale of the evolution of the oil industry’s stance on the issue. Lovell is a renowned geologist with degrees from Oxford and Harvard, and after a fifteen year career working with BP, is currently a senior research fellow at Cambridge and President of the Geological Society of London. The oil industry is, of course, responsible for emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases and the major US-based companies have historically anchored corporate opposition to regulating carbon. After presenting the ominous evidence inscribed in the rocks about the severity of our climate problem, a more optimistic Lovell argues that the oil industry can also be part of the solution, by deploying its political prowess, financial resources, and technological expertise. He makes the case that sequestration, or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), is a feasible and cost effective solution for a significant portion of emissions.

Lovell explains how recent progress in geological science enables relatively high-definition dating of rock to within timescales of thousands, rather than millions, of years. Analysis of these long-buried rocks has revealed a dire warning for our industrial civilization. Around 55 million years ago, over 1000 gigatonnes of carbon (GTC) were released into the atmosphere during a short period, geologically speaking, of around 10,000 years. This coincided with an unprecedented warming of the planet, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Ocean temperatures rose by 4-5 degrees Celsius, , mass extinctions of animal and plant life occurred, and it took nearly 200,000 years for the climate to settle down. We humans have already added about 300 GTC to the atmosphere in the last two centuries, and currently add about nine more every year.

You cannot argue with rocks, but you can argue with the interpretation of data encoded in them. For those like myself already convinced of the science of climate change, based atmospheric science and simulations, the geological evidence is further proof, if any was needed. Lovell sets out the scientific case in a reasonably accessible way, though I suspect there is much more intriguing story to be told about the evolution of the science, the debates amongst the geologists, and the realization of the dramatic import of the secrets in the ancient rocks. Lovell’s treatment of the evidence, however, is neither a compelling narrative nor particularly persuasive. Exploring the subject in the authoritative blog RealClimate.org, I found that there are still large areas of uncertainty in the data and their interpretation.[1] Ten thousand years is a long time in climate politics. The total carbon released might have been up to 3000 GT, and with the higher levels of atmospheric CO2 at the time, even this represents less than doubling of the level. We don’t know enough about other influences on climate at the time, especially the more complex feedback effects among clouds, forests and ice cover.

In the most original section of the book, Lovell traces the role of geologists in BP in shifting the direction of the company. In January 1997, David Jenkins, BP’s Director of Technology and former Chief Geologist, sent a memo to BP’s managing directors emphasizing both the scientific and business case for climate change. This process culminated with CEO John Browne’s historic speech at Stanford University in May 1997, in which Browne broke ranks with the industry by acknowledging the reality of climate change and pledging to take steps to address it. Lovell makes the case that BP was particularly open to the influence of geologists because of the centrality of the discipline in the oil business and the consequent respect for their expertise, especially from internal corporate scientists. This resonates with findings from my own research (together with Professor Sandra Rothenberg) on industry’s response to climate change, which points to the importance of the organizational channels that filter and legitimize particular perspectives. At Exxon, Brian Flannery, a respected atmospheric scientist and a climate skeptic, led a highly centralized strategy team that left little room for debate. European companies, by contrast, lacked internal expertise in atmospheric science, and so relied more on outside scientists who hewed to the mainstream consensus.

Geologists also feature as Lovell’s heroes in finding ways to bury carbon back underground. The same technological expertise that is used to locate and extract oil and gas can be applied toward long-term storage in underground reservoirs, giving companies an economic interest in developing the process. Lovell the geologist points out that storage in existing oil and gas reservoirs is relatively straightforward but limited in potential scale. Far greater capacity is available in saline aquifers, though he acknowledges that the permanence and side effects are uncertain. If Lovell’s strength is geology, he falters, however, in making a clear business case for the commercial viability of CCS. He cites one study showing that CCS might add 1 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of coal-fired power, which might be viable at the low end but more than doubles the cost of electricity at the high end. Various cost estimates for CCS are given, from $6 to $10 per tonne, though he notes that a carbon price of $50 per tonne would be needed to make it viable. Aside from the confusion of numbers, Lovell doesn’t comment on the political challenge of securing a carbon price this high, at least in the US context.

Lovell could be a very influential player in the climate debate as an oil industry expert and former inside. Despite his knowledge of the rocks, this book unfortunately suffers from uneven and inelegant style and structure, wandering from a fifteen page verbatim report on a public BP-Exxon debate to Edinburgh South election results and Hertfordshire Puddingstone, complete with pictures in case readers are unfamiliar with these rocks. Notably, Lovell recognizes that industry needs a push to take action.  Proclaiming that “Earth is not for negotiation”, Lovell advocates passionately for climate Keynesianism, stronger governmental policies and international institutions to create the incentives and regulations to steer corporate strategies. Climate policy is in disarray, however, and even a rock solid case does not seem to overcome the political obstacles to action.


[1] See, for example, http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/08/petm-weirdness/#more-758

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