502 - The Ultimate Conundrum

This is my blogs 502nd post. Pretty excellent.

I watched a documentary recently that was difficult. It wasn't a graphic, violent documentary, nor was it scary, but it was disquieting. A subtle thriller that excretes shock and thrilling disasters with mildly scary ramifications. The documentary was Gasland, and it focuses on the US boom in Hydraulic Fracturing, or Fracking, in the goal to obtain as much Natural Gas as possible. There are two reasons for its impact – the first being an obviously dreadful series of events – basically, fracking is the explosion and cracking of layers of rock to free up the gas underneath, and then collect it. There is a lot of gas stuck in the ground in the US and for that reason it's been very commercially successful. The problem lies in the in the fracking procedure; you're forcing down a concoction of drilling fluids that aren't normally there and essentially mixing it with whatever is down there, ie water. Also, by freeing the gas you are freeing it into the water too.

The result is people who can set fire to the water coming out of their taps.

The other reason was that it highlighted something to me that I'd probably only really started thinking about recently, and something that I am beginning to worry about. This worry is an ethical conundrum. The question is thus:

How can I work for an industry that is contributing pollution and emissions?

I believe in global warming. I do not believe in it as a man made phenomenon – we haven't even left the last ice age, so things are always going to warm up. Indeed, this is the only time in this planets 4.3 billion year history that it's been cold enough for there to be two ice caps on both poles. I do think we are contributing to the speed of the change, sure, but the earth's been a lot warmer and a lot colder. However, it's not just CO2 emissions that are the problem.

The problem's worse when I consider that we don't do enough to offset the effect we have on the environment – recently, I have noticed places and moments within my own job that have directly impacted on the emissions of a plant or platform, and not always in positive ways. I see wasteful uses of resource, and even worse conscious design choices that actually create worse conditions for release of gases and liquids that shouldn't be released. For example, I found out recently that a separation caisson, where, in a pipe lined up vertically, oil and water mix and separate naturally, that is actually just an open ended pipe dumping directly to the sea surface – no separation and oil being "spilled" into the ocean.

Admittedly this is in an area of the world that allows this; the UK sector wouldn't have it. Of course, this isn't an excuse (I wasn't part of that design) but it's endemic in these developing parts of the industry.

It's also the problem that our consumption hasn't caught up with our ability to keep the use clean – we burn a lot of the oil that is refined in our cars, but the other things – plastics – are much worse long term. The best property of a plastic is also the worst – it's longevity. We may have started to focus efforts on the plastic bag problem recently with biodegradable bags, bags for life, and even charging people for them, but in fact that's the tip of the iceberg – water, that is free to drink across the UK from taps, is packaged in plastic bottles that will be around for hundreds of years. It's that which is the worst case of waste, as seen in the beaches and rivers around the UK and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on the microscopic scale.

I like to think I do my bit – I don't drive, walking or using public transport almost always. I recycle paper and cardboard, and will be trying to recycle more. I don't use plastic bags, I detest having to buy a bottle of juice for my lunch on those rare occasions, and I have vowed to never fly internally in the UK if that is my final destination ever again. These things are small compared to the footprint of the job and career that I have carved for myself, and I worry not only what to think on a day to day basis, but also what my children will think of me – I worked for the industry that built the world that they'll have to figure out how to fix? I don't know if I can handle that.

The more and more I think about, the more and more I feel that I will have to change career, focus, role or outlook. I know that I can do more and be better in this job, and force better decisions for the environment, but at the moment… it feels ethically ambiguous.