I thought I’d dip into an energy textbook today, not realising that I would encounter a new angle on a story of forty years of silence and denial that’s been shocking climate change commentators.
Ever since Inside Climate News published a report on the company Exxon and the history of its global warming research (“Exxon : The Road Not Taken”), strong reaction has continued to accumulate, on a spectrum from disbelief, to disappointment to deep cynicism.
In the United States, almost predictably in that uniquely litigious culture, various lawsuits are accumulating with the large oil and gas companies as their targets, and Exxon is the latest defendant. It is a matter of political, social and environmental import to have the facts where there is suspected misleading of the public on matters of science. In this case, if proved, those misled would include shareholders in the company.
And it’s not just a question of global warming science here – Exxon’s alleged readiness to obscure basic physics and the implications of carbon loading of the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning may have also resulted in an obscuring of the scientific realities underlying their own corporate viability.
You see, Exxon’s business interests rely on their continued ability to find and dig up oil and gas. Now last year was a difficult one, as depressed crude oil and Natural Gas commodity prices put some of Exxon’s resources “off-books”, so their reserves replacement – topping up their bankable assets – was only 67% of their previous end-of-year. It could be easy to connect the dots on this one – some of the gas they could pump is just too costly right now to get to. But what if Exxon are finally meeting another kind of Nemesis – of their own making – because they’re working on faulty geophysical data, which they produced themselves ?
So, let’s start where I did, with Chapter Eight “Basin stratigraphy” of the reference book “Basin Analysis” by Philip A. Allen and John R. Allen, 3rd edition, published by Wiley Blackwell, ISBN 978-0470673768.
The chapter introduces many important concepts regarding how sedimentary basins formed in deep Earth time – sediments of organic matter that have in some cases become reservoirs of fossil fuels. It talks about how strata get laid down – the science of “process stratigraphy”. Much of the logic relies on the phenomenon of the rising and falling of sea level relative to land masses over geological cycles, correlating with significant swings in climate. The book mentions early work by Exxon scientists : “Using seismic reflection results, a team of geologists and biostratigraphers from Exxon constructed a chart of relative sea level through time (Vail et al., (1997b), updated and improved by Haq et al. (1987, 1988)).” The chapter goes on to critique one important working assumption of that original work – that all sedimentary similarities must be an indicator of synchronicity – that is, that they happened at the same time. The text goes on to read, “In summary, we follow Carter (1998) in believing that the Haq et al. (1997) curve is a ‘noisy’ amalgam of a wide range of local sea-level signals, and should not be used as a global benchmark…its use as a chronostratigraphic tool by assuming a priori that a certain stratigraphic boundary has a globally synchronous and precise age, which it is therefore safe to extrapolate into a basin with poor age control, is hazardous.”
Why is this important ? Because all of the understanding of petroleum geophysics relies on the stratigraphic charts drawn up by these scientists. And yet, even at their inception, there was corporate “confidentiality” invoked. According to a paper from Anthony Hallam, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 1984, 12: 205-243 : “Most important, details of the evidence supporting the eustatic claims of the Exxon group (Vail et al 1977) are not published, and hence their claims cannot be checked directly”. What ? A data set relied on not only by everybody in the fossil fuel energy industry, but also all geologists and even climate change scientists, has a fault line in the evidence ? Why would Exxon want to obscure the origin of this data ? Did they need to keep quiet about their stratigraphy science because it revealed too much about climate change ? Are there problems with the science, but that even they didn’t find out ? And is there then the possibility that they have relied too much on faulty 40 year old research in fossil fuel exploration and discovery ?
Exxon might be starting to be more transparent – as this set of charts from 2010 reveals, “A Compilation of Phanerozoic Sea-Level Change, Coastal Onlaps and Recommended Sequence Designations”, Snedden and Liu, 2010, AAPG Search and Discovery, in which the text includes, “The magnitudes of sea-level change in this chart follow the estimation of Haq and Schutter (2008) and Hardenbol et al. (1998). However, there is little consensus on the range of sea-level changes, though most believe that the sea-level position during most of the Phanerozoic was within +/- 100 meters of the present-day level.”
To me, it remains an intriguing possibility that the whole oil and gas industry has been working with incomplete or misaligned data, in which case, can we really believe that there are another four or five good decades of good quality fossil fuels to exploit ?
Other PDFs of interest :-