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Oil industry insider exposé: what it took to wake some of them up on climate.

David Lewis's picture
  • Member since 2018
  • 353 items added with 44,390 views
  • Nov 19, 2010

book jacketI’ve just read Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change, which was written by Dr. Bryan Lovell, a former senior executive at British Petroleum.

Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, a former CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell, appears on the first page in a reviewers blurb and tells us this book is “an authoritative insider’s view”. 

It is.

BP and Shell rank #2 and #3 respectively on the list of the biggest non state sponsored oil companies in the world.  Lovell writes about how it came to be that the senior European oil executives backed Kyoto while Exxon-Mobil continued on with its denial campaign. In the process, he also shows us what he and his European counterparts believe about how dangerous climate change is.  I was astonished. 

Lovell is also a top flight geologist:  he is the incoming President of the Geological Society of London, the largest such society in Europe and the oldest in the world.  Moody-Stuart is not only a former Shell CEO:  he is a former President of the Geological Society. 

The first third of the book is a description of the science that caused these senior figures from the European oil industry and many others in the industry there, as opposed to their counterparts in the US, to understand that climate change is actually serious

I wasn’t that interested in the rest of the book.  It contains a detailed chronology of when and how their attitudes changed.  There is a transcript and analysis of a high level debate between the VP of Exxon-Mobil and the VP of BP, “the senior representatives on environmental matters of [the] two major organizations”, moderated by Moody-Stuart when he was President of the Geological Society.  The rest of the book is Lovell’s vision of what role the global oil industry should play as civilization comes to grips with this issue. 

On the other hand, I was riveted at times by the discussion of how these people see the science.  Princeton’s Dr. Robert Socolow, the co-originator of the concept of “stabilization wedges”, appears along with Moody-Stuart on the first page of blurbs from reviewers.  He says:  “Lovell’s voice is a new one on the climate change stage….” 

It took a while for Lovell to get my attention.  He begins by explaining that the oil industry is “dominated” by geologists and engineers.  He tells us that such types dismissed climatology, because it is a science based solely or mainly on “computer based models of complicated natural systems”, which, Lovell tells us, are not well founded and cannot be reliable.   

(Zzzzz.   I was drifting off already and it was only page 8I thought: no one, not even the CEOs of the multinational oil giants will be able to obliterate the records of what was known and when it was discovered.) 

I turned the page.  Lovell was droning on:  “So what does constitute really solid evidence for a geologist?” 

I perked up.  Lovell:  “for the oil industry, a message that comes from the rocks comes from a trusted source.  Then I found myself looking at this chart on page 24:

















Suddenly I woke up.  What this chart appearing in this book at this point means: 

The oil execs understand and believe that the amount of carbon that is being moved into the atmosphere as civilization accelerates its use of fossil fuels is going in at such a rate that the only comparable event in Earth’s history is the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum).  They believe a recurrence of this event is not only possible but likely.  They can’t face being held responsible by history.  The European senior oil execs, unlike their American counterparts, and perhaps only briefly, lost their nerve about the denial policy, backed Kyoto, and confronted the Americans.  The science described by Lovell is why BP started its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign.  The science hasn’t changed.  Obviously, BP has.  

 The PETM is the most extreme event in the paleoclimate record for the last 65 million years.  There was the asteroid impact that got the dinosaurs, and then there was the PETM.  It was caused by a relatively sudden, massive, natural accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, an event that might be explained by the clathrate gun hypothesis i.e. something puts a lot of carbon in the air, a big load of carbon comes out of the heating oceans, the methane in seabed clathrates is released, this methane decomposes into a fantastic amount of CO2 in the air, and boom, the planetary system heats up until tropical conditions prevail in the Arctic.  Whatever caused the “blast from the past”, it can be proved the CO2 was there, and it can be proved the planet was that warm.  We’re not talking about some minor fluctuation such as an interglacial followed by an ice age.  The temperature of the water at the bottom of the ocean increased by 4 – 6 degrees C.  

Lovell:  “The crucial message recorded in ice and rocks is that release of carbon to the atmosphere at the rate now practiced by us is taking us dangerously beyond the range of geologically recent periodic increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide recorded in the ice cores”.  – page 28

This is a stark, clear view of what “dangerous climate change” is, certified by the most senior of the people who have the most interest in denying that something like this is even remotely possible. 

Perhaps that short “crucial message” quote needs some explanation. 

Lovell left ice out of the book until this passage.  The execs can only pretend they denied climatology because as geologists they only trust observational science [which] requires no computer- generated models to carry conviction, until someone brings up ice cores.  The oil execs actually denied all of paleoclimatology.    

 (E.g:  I once saw Digby McLaren, former petroleum geologist,, former Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, during the time when he was the President of the Royal Society of Canada, in intense debate at the Changing Atmosphere conference in Toronto.  Behind doors closed to all but accredited delegates, a computer modeler implied climate change might not be that serious.  McLaren stared at him: “what about the Vostok Core?”  The man was stopped in his tracks.  This was in 1988.) 

 Lovell brings up ice at this point because he needed to show the difference between the big dog problem he sees that commiting the planetary system to anything like the PETM is compared to the relatively minor variations in planetary temperature that ice cores show.  All the ice cores show is that CO2 was the big thermostat driving the planetary system into and out of the ice ages.  Piddly little things on that scale, i.e. miniscule changes like where the planetary system went from almost all of Canada obliterated under one mile thick of ice one day to all this ice just disappears, weren’t going to and did not slow down these senior oil execs.  Lovell needed to bring up the ice cores to explain that what finally got to the European oil men was the prospect of being held responsible for something far worse.

I interject here a passage from page 5:  “Few of us involved in exploration and production in recent years can afford to be sanctimonious about the doubt promoted by sections of our industry.…”   Moving right along: 

Lovell asks:  “could we [civilization] survive even these smaller periodic variations now [ice age/interglacials] … without desolation?  Still more daunting, could we cope with something episodic and huge, on the scale of a 55 Ma warming event [PETM]?  – page 28

A repeat of anything like the PETM is a big nightmare.  Of course it is true that Hansen has a nightmare that is worse. That’s when the oceans boil away and Earth never has life again.  Hansen says the Sun is stronger now, that’s what a star of its size does as it ages, we’re moving the carbon in faster, and when the Earth system finally has to equilibrate to the total amount of carbon that ends up in the atmosphere, there may be more power forcing the system relatively than whatever the forcing was at the PETM peak.  There’s a lot of “ifs” in his theory.  He says if we burn all the natural gas, all the oil, oil sand, oil shale, and coal, it’s a “dead certainty”. 

But Lovell writes as if this one step back from Hansen’s ultimate nightmare possibility is what the rocks are telling the senior petroleum industry executives in a way they can’t possibly continue to deny.  They believe the use of their products is going to cause this. 

Challenged by Carbon’s Amazon sales rank makes it their 780,620th most popular book.  People are dumping their used copies of it at Amazon for $2.18, plus shipping.  Act now, before popular demand makes copies impossible to obtain.  But you don’t have to forego next month’s mortgage payment or cash in Junior’s College Fund to read Lovell himself.   Lovell wrote a Sunday Times article.  The Geological Society has a description of a Lovell lecture here.  The Geological Society also published a three part article by Lovell in their journal Geoscientist, in three successive issues, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3   All are free to view. 

Some US Republicans, flushed with electoral victory, have announced that a bigger priority for them than doing anything corporate America has to worry about is to conduct an Inquisition aimed at climate scientists.  My wife interrupted me as I twas telling her this to exclaim that something like this was not possible in this country she grew up in. I am writing this in America. 

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Nov 28, 2010

Thank you for writing this book.  Thanks for your comment.  I would appreciate if you could tell me where “it has been misunderstood elsewhere since” my “original posting”, so I could see what was misunderstood for myself. 

I had originally found the Dr. Jenkins letter to the Managing Directors as quoted in your book, as written in early 1997, that I see now your book says “was instrumental in changing the environmental policy of BP“, to be basically incomprehensible, what with all the, as you wrote, “plenty of disputed science” in it.  

I took it to be a political argument.  I read it as a  proposal from Jenkins to top level management suggesting what the plan should be now that it looked like Kyoto was actually going to be signed.  The only margin note I put in at that point recorded my reaction to Jenkins’ use of an argument in it, that depended on accepting the accuracy of a computer model.  I wrote:  “I thought geologists didn’t believe in computer models“.

As you wrote: “the oil industry did not take any public responsibility for anthropogenic climate change until 1997“.  The Jenkins letter, however pivotal it was, did not strike me as coming from someone who was now accepting some measure of responsibility and who was going to change how they operated in some significant way. 

Your book was describing a real change.  What leaped out from the pages of your book were statements such as this:

“the leadership  [of the oil industry]  should accept the message from the rocks”.

Which I took as coming from one former top level executive to all former and present top level executives. Anyone telling anyone senior in the oil industry to accept that message was telling them to change their thinking on climate. 

I thought what was demonstrated as BP and Shell suddenly backed Kyoto was that senior executives such as yourself had had a change of heart and now accepted that climate change is serious.  I thought your call to “the leadership” was to other executives in other oil companies, most notably, to Exxon-Mobil.

And I thought you were describing evidence that had arrived in time for everyone to see before Kyoto: 

The important message interpreted from the rocks by Norris and Rohl in 1999 was outstanding confirmation of earlier work by Dickens, Castillo and Walker (1997), and Dickens, O’Neill, Rea and Owen (1995) (see Chapter 2).  If a broader public had been aware of that message in 1997, would that have prevented the rapid development of a major Atlantic Divide in the oil industry?

As you say, whether the change in policy came before or after the data that your Figure 2.3 depicts arrived: “that sequence does not affect the main thrust of” my “argument”.  Again, I am interested in where this “elsewhere” is where my argument was “misunderstood”. 


David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Dec 1, 2010

I’ve sent a note to Jim Hansen suggesting that he read your book if he hasn’t done so already.  I think he’d like your call to “the leadership” of the oil industry that they should “accept the message coming from the rocks“. 

I mentioned that you commented here and asked him if he has anything to say, especially on the topic of, as you say “on the face of it, the twentieth-century oil industry has to accept a charge of either ignorance or malice“, to which you add “the story is more complicated”.  I don’t doubt that it is. 

As everyone has no doubt heard, Hansen gave a speech at the National Press Club June 23 2008 in which he said:  “CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”  He mentioned two such companies by name in his next sentence:  “ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal.  You did explain there was a difference between BP, Royal/Dutch Shell, and Exxon-Mobil. 

History will judge the oil industry in the end.  If all the executives of the fossil fuel companies were talking like you write, even at this late date, it would do a lot of good.  We’re all stuck with what’s happened to the planet.  If we could all find ourselves on the same side now, there is a lot could be done. Maybe things could be stabilized. 

My view on what the industry knew:  I don’t see how it is possible for the senior people to have not understood that there was a serious concern being expressed by the top scientists working in climatology from at least 1988 and onwards.  (That year was when I first became involved).  The evidence was of the type you confirm that geologists can understand:  the Vostok core data was available in 1987.  That’s what the story about Digby McLaren is doing in my post.  McLaren was a former top flight geologist/oil man who took over the Royal Society of Canada with concern about climate change on his mind.  The ice cores convinced him.  The summer of 1988 saw the issue make the front pages all over the world.  Anyone working anywhere in the fossil fuel industry would have seen this.  I often wondered how an industry that had to depend on scientists, i.e. geologists, could simply dismiss an entire scientific discipline of scientists in the way it was apparent that the fossil fuel industry was doing. 

But I have no idea what the senior people in the oil industry allowed to penetrate their minds.  If all the executives of the fossil fuel companies showed they were as clear as you are about where they stand right now, I think all critics would feel a lot less need to attack them in the way some of us, such as Hansen, or myself, have in the past. 


David Lewis's picture
Thank David for the Post!
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