Gulf disaster will not write off the hydrocarbon age

01 June 2010

Letters Editor
The Times


What is happening in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster; but oil provides 36% of the world's energy and this proportion is unlikely to change significantly soon.  There are too many vested interests, including producing countries that are almost wholly dependent on hydrocarbons for their gross domestic product (GDP) and future prosperity.

Many thousands of subsea wells have already been drilled globally, and incidents are extremely rare, although their consequences can be profound. Regulations and procedures for operational activities have been well developed internationally over time, including for the North Sea. 

While some documentation may have occasional weaknesses in specific applications, by far the most dominant reason for these and other incidents in the oil industry is failure to comply with these frameworks at the individual, team or corporate level. 

A dose of reality means that both onshore and offshore oil will be with us for a long time still, notwithstanding the current self-doubt, and therefore education and training in the associated science and engineering, coupled with a culture of creativity and challenge, will continue to be important. This covers everything from geoscience in exploration, to oil-gas separation in process plants, and to carbon capture and storage to reduce combustion emissions.

That same creativity must be directed also to develop renewable energy sources and a future generation of nuclear power stations. But this needs decisive leadership and finance, both of which have been in short supply in the recent international debate on climate change. In this period of uncertainty, oil, gas and coal will continue to dominate (80% of world energy), and we will all need to reiterate the priorities of safety, security of supply and emission and environmental control. 

Although we may not like it, it is far too early to write off the hydrocarbon age.


Dr Richard Pike
Chief Executive
Royal Society of Chemistry

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