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Geologists, Oil Companies, and Climate Change

Why most geologists believe in climate change

The year was 1859, and the industrial revolution was in full swing. Almost a century and a half had passed since Thomas Newcomen’s “atmospheric engine” ushered in the age of steam power. Wood and coal were powering steam engines around the world, sending minor amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But the demand for more power was growing. However, Edwin Drake wasn’t thinking about powering the world of transportation on August 27, 1859, when he drilled for and found the first North American commercial oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He was looking for kerosene to be used in lamps, thus replacing whale oil.

Another 33 years would pass before gasoline started powering automobiles. By 1920 there were nine million cars needing petroleum fuels, and 100 years later, we have 1.4 billion working vehicles on the world’s roads. Coal, oil, and natural gas became the enablers of cheap energy for transportation and massive industrial complexes. All of these energy sources reside below the ground, and rising demand set companies on the search for more fuel. As the search for energy moved deeper into the earth, geologists became valuable contributors when exploring for the next batch of fossil fuel.

New technologies in drilling and mining were developed to remove fossil fuel deposits from the earth’s bowels once geologists located a new deposit. The world became hooked on cheap energy with virtually no thought of the long-term ramifications from burning these fossil fuels. We could point the finger at geologists in this whole sorted affair. After all, you can’t use what you can’t find. They have played their part for sure, but they were just a small cog in the massive economic engine that built our modern world from ample, cheap energy. But just because they have profited from the energy business doesn’t mean they don’t understand the facts and dangers of climate change. So, what do these geologists actually do?

An unglamorous career

Anyone who watched the original Star Trek series understands that being a geologist on the starship USS Enterprise was like to having a death warrant issued. Whenever the intrepid Captain Kirk ordered a ground expedition and specifically demanded the ship’s geologist accompany them, you knew who was not coming back. Geologists were eaten, dropped into deep crevasses, zapped by aliens, and so on. The message was clear; being a geologist in space was literally a dead-end career.

In secondary school, geologists were not space explorers. No, they were pudgy introverts who liked collecting minerals. Kids wanted to be astronauts, doctors, lawyers, even accountants, but no self-respecting high schooler went around muttering, “I want to be a geologist.”

But as life would have it, some undesirable things turn out to be much better than expected. While Captain Kirk and a long string of other space officers were exploring the universe, the demand for oil on planet earth continued to grow. But the game was getting harder, and the easy pickings were fewer and far between. Oil companies realized more geologists were needed, and sending them into space to be eaten, was a poor use of resources. So, starting salaries for geologists began rising faster than the rest of the working world, and suddenly being a geologist was a particularly lucrative line of work. University Geology departments filled up with students, and oil companies lined up to hire them as the diplomas were passed out.

How do they do that?

Drilling for oil is a financially-risky business proposition where the cost of a single exploration well can run north of $100 million, with less than a 50 percent chance of actually finding any oil—much less finding commercial quantities. The advice to many new hires is, “if you can’t deal with failure, don’t be an exploration geologist.

When a company hires a geologist, they are hiring a risk manager. His or her geological knowledge is the tool brought to the table for managing risk. The exploration process requires consideration of five parameters: source, migration, reservoir, trap, and seal.

The source of the oil
Oil migration from the source
The location of reservoir quality rock formations
Geological configurations that trap oil
Rock formations that seal oil into a trap

An oil source starts with organic-rich rocks, buried deep underground. Temperatures increase with depth, and at about 110 degrees Celsius, the heat begins transforming organic material to oil. By 140 to 150 degrees, the source rock is at peak oil generation, and oil is flowing from the source and migrating.

Pressure and buoyancy drive the migration, and eventually the oil finds its way into porous reservoir quality rock. Migration accelerates along porosity pathways, and oil moves as high in the rock as it can until porosity disappears, and the oil becomes trapped. If the rock formation over the trap lacks any porosity, it then seals in the oil, and an oil field is born.

The whole process involves extracting information from reams of data and extrapolating this information to develop models determining where the oil treasure lies. It all seems so simple, except every step of the process requires studying data that is either ambiguous or remote from the oil field. Geologists assess each of the five parameters in terms of its chance of success. Collectively the individual probabilities of success combine, determining the likelihood of finding oil at a specific location.

Geologists and climate change

Returning to the theme of geologists and climate change — there is a fairly straight forward reason they generally believe it’s happening and it’s human-driven. They view climate change through the lens of their own experience.

A first and essential observation is, geologists spend a lot of time looking at data to develop models for locating oil deposits. This process requires looking at information with a critical eye and determining what it is really telling you. Once something is deemed useful, it still needs to be combined with a host of other data to develop a theory on the oil’s location.

After a sometimes-lengthy investigation, the geologist must then understand the uncertainty of the information he or she used, and place a probability of success on the whole venture before drilling. A 50% chance of success is considered good, an 80% chance of success is great, and a 95% chance you are correct means you would be a fool not to drill.

Climate science is not much different in many ways. Large data sets are carefully analyzed, hypotheses developed and tested, and theories proposed. NASA’s review of published scientific climate studies “show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.

Geologists create success by accurately assessing the risks and probabilities of finding oil. In a business where winning is dependent on good risk assessment, a 97 percent chance of success is a stunning number. If an oil prospect has a 97 percent chance of yielding a billion dollars in profit, no self-respecting exploration geologist will say, “I’m betting on the 3 percent chance of failure,” or even worse, call it a hoax.

Most geologists believe that climate change is real and heavily driven by human activity because this is what the data and rigorous analysis tell us — decades of research from hundreds of detailed studies almost all come to the same conclusion. Geologists spend their careers dealing with data analysis and probability. Therefore, they go with the high probability answer, not the magical thinking that says, “Ok, it’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.”—thank you DT for that insight.

Geologists are involved in searching for fossil fuels, but this doesn’t make them climate change deniers. They generally trust the answers provided by scientific analysis and study. The geologist who dwells on the 3 percent chance being wrong will probably be found on starships preparing for ground missions and filling out their last will and testimony.


Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming (Source: NASA)

First American Oil Well (Source: American Oil and Gas historical Society)

Gasoline explained (Source: U.S Energy Information Administration)

Feature Image: Rocks and Oil (Modified by ArcheanWeb) - Original Credit: Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash –

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.