October 20, 2022, 9:49 Oct

Imperial has a gas problem

I made a LinkedIn post about a recent disruption of Imperial's ChemEng department's oil and gas career's talks. Leaving this post here as a placeholder because I have a lot more I would like to say about my time at Imperial, the idea being that I'll periodically update it.

Climate denial denial

Let's start with a particular incident from when I was in the 2nd year of my undergrad. Sometime in the spring term if I'm not mistaken you get a comprehensive career's workshop. It's groups of ~20 to 30 people and you do various exercises e.g. the fucking horror that you would face at an assessment centre (the exact word escapes me, but it's that thing that most big companies do so they can "objectively" evaluate everyone and not get sued for being racist / sexist in their hiring procedures).

One of the exercises was in line with this, we were being tested on our group work skills as we might in a job interview. Actually before I mention that * I should talk about the people giving this workshop. It was a former CEO of Shell in the Bahamas who boasted about when worked there he could call up the president of the Bahamas. I can't remember what his wife (also present) did, but I think that's fitting of the impression I got of their relationship. They had started a consultancy together and apparently spent their time doing this and charging obscene amounts of money for singularly difficult problems an oil and gas company might face.

Anyway, back to the team exercise. We were split into groups of around 8 and given a statement to discuss and then present at the end. Our statement was "The oil and gas industry fights against action on climate change because it's not in their interests." We all agreed that this was true, because it is and we're not stupid. Then this dude (let's call him Max for the sake of the story) comes over and starts chatting to us about the hockey stick graph. I will not explain the hockey stick graph debacle because it's stupid and it was debunked when I was in my pyjamas (pyjamas being my primary school uniform). He however did explain it, and cautioned us to "think critically" or words to that effect.

I was gobsmacked. Here was an intelligent person, at a world leading (their words) university, in twenty fucking seventeen, denying climate change. I remember we (mainly one guy in our group) tried to argue with Max, but the problem was that none of us knew about this hockey stick graph business, because again, it's stupid and it had been debunked before our time.

Top tip: the use of information which no one knows about is a favourite tactic of conspiracy theorists and bullshitters. Instead of addressing it, ask the person how they reconcile their piece of information with what you know. In this case, how do you reconcile this idiotic hockey stick graph debacle with the IPCC i.e. the worlds leading climate scientists?

The workshop ended and I was still troubled so I asked Max whether he really didn't believe global warming was taking place. I remember very clearly him saying "You know nothing of my opinions" and he then told me to read the Stern review, implying that that was more in line with his actual opinion. The Stern review is not idiotic, and it's definitely better than Nordhaus's DICE model, the results of which said something along the lines of "Let's not bother taking action just yet". I left that conversation even more confused, especially since I hadn't heard of the Stern review and I didn't think to press Max on this issue (we didn't really vibe much).

I still don't understand what was going through his head when he decided to make this intervention. Was he trying to get us to argue with him and "think critically"? If so, I don't understand why he didn't then say "Lol, fooled you, don't be suckers for bullshit next time."

This incident for me was indicative of the mood at Imperial regarding climate change. Even if it was not outright denial, treatment of such issues could be flippant. That episode would have been unthinkable in an environment where the gravity of the climate predicament was accepted and the lives lost already to extreme or sustained weather events were treated with respect.

* Yes this is a stream of consciousness, deal with it, I don't have time to organise my thoughts properly.

Update on: 6th of May, 2024

Mijn favoriete boek voor heel lang was "Bad Science" van Ben Goldacre, die ik tenminste twintig keer las, ook in het Nederlands (daarom de poging om dit in het Nederlands te schrijven). In het boek, Goldacre beschrijft hoe gek het is om jouw conclusies te maken voor dat je een experiment uitvoert. Hij geeft een example of iemand die, maniakaal lachend, vuurt een machinegeweer blindelings op een muur en cirkelt vervolgens 3 kogelgaten dicht bij elkaar en verkondigt dat ze een deskundige scherpschutter zijn.

This, in a sense, is what fossil fuel companies did and continue to do with Imperial. Having determined their narratives e.g. "fossil gas is a transition fuel", they then funded initiatives to justify these. Consider two examples. Firstly, the Sustainable Gas Institute of Imperial, no longer active. The US House Oversight and Accountability Committee / Senate Budget Committee uncovered documents from Shell detailing how the Sustainable Gas Institute "provides thought leadership and research into technology that could underpin role for gas". Nigel Brandon is still the dean of the Faculty of Engineering as far as I know.

The same committee (as far as I can tell) also found that:

A March 2018 draft presentation marked “Confidential” identifies the “challenge” facing BP as extensive press pieces reporting that natural gas is a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change, including 15 articles from late 2016 to late 2017 that describe the risks of methane emissions associated with natural gas. The slides are titled “Gas doesn’t support climate goals when you take methane emissions into account.” The presentation describes a forthcoming BP communications campaign to “advance and protect the role of gas – and BP – in the energy transition.” One key pillar of the campaign strategy was to “‘Harness excitement’ around renewables by positioning gas as the perfect partner,” even though methane and carbon dioxide emissions from producing, transporting, and burning natural gas present significant risks. The document recommends funding white papers by research institutions like Princeton University and Imperial College “highlighting [the] role of gas as a friend to renewables;” hosting global stakeholder events with influential leaders; and highlighting “hero projects” to demonstrate the benefits of gas and offer anecdotal evidence of methane management. BP estimated spending $1.1 million in the first year of the campaign alone. [Source]

(Aside: reading this makes me so mad at all the idiots who gaslight others when they bring up methane leakage emissions, e.g. Fluxys.)

Wat is het verband met het verhaal dat ik in het begin vertelde? Wel, er zijn veel modelen en tools om een vraag te antwoorden. En als je veel tools gebruikt, of veel verschillende invoerparameters aan dezelfde tool geeft (= veel kogels schiet), dan zal je natuurlijk veel verschillende antwoorden krijgen. Dan is het gewoon een vraag om jouw favoriete antwoorden te kiezen. Voilà! Wetenschap à la oil and gas.

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