Geology and ’the dark side’
Peter Ledingham & Suzie Doe*
*This blog represents the views of the author and not the company
A long time ago in a galaxy – well, this galaxy actually – it was commonplace for geology graduates to follow careers in the oil & gas and mining industries. And why not? They offered secure, interesting, technically challenging and financially rewarding jobs. But something has changed. Now a significant number of geology students regard these industries as the dark side. They are looking for more environmentally sensitive and sustainable career opportunities, some even choosing careers in totally different disciplines, as suggested by the falling numbers taking geology A-level.
As part of the outreach and education programmes at the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power project, we have visited lots of schools, hosted school visits and attended many careers events. When we ask geology students what they want to do after graduation there is a very clear bias towards industries like geothermal energy and environmental management and away from what they regard as more controversial and undesirable ones like hydrocarbons and mining.
A group of A-level geology students from Helston Community College visiting the UDDGP site in February, 2019.
The widespread reporting of catastrophic pollution events, mining operations that devastate the landscape and protests against ‘fracking’ projects has undoubtedly contributed to this negative perception of extractive industries. But is it really fair to paint the picture quite so black and white? The negative reporting is often actually about bad practice, not bad industries. There is lots of good practice too, carried out safety and in full compliance with environmental regulations.
And, whether we like it or not, these industries are going to be essential to support the move towards a low-carbon future and to provide gap fuels until it is achieved. Minerals and metals have to be mined to make batteries, wind turbines and solar panels, and provide the raw materials necessary for generation and transmission equipment for renewable energies. The phasing out of fossil fuels is clearly desirable but it isn’t going to happen overnight, even if the necessary decisions were taken now. We probably face a transition period of at least two working lifetimes during which oil and gas will still be needed in significant amounts.
If the hydrocarbon and mining industries are unable to recruit good quality graduate geologists, and other earth scientists, the situation will get worse, not better. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a workforce with the skills to manage the transition period in the best way possible, both from a technical and an environmental standpoint. Better to enter the industry and help steer it towards best practice than to stay out of it and dismiss it as antisocial, or worse.
The management of radioactive waste is sometimes overlooked these days, but has no less stigma attached to it. The UK has a significant amount of waste which is currently stored at surface. Other countries have similar stores. The international consensus, arrived at after decades of research and experimentation, is that geological disposal or storage is the best long term solution. The identification of sites, construction, monitoring and management of such facilities is a complex and challenging exercise but earth science graduate noses are likely to turn up even more at the suggestion that they enter this field than at the idea of working in oil and gas. Yet a lack of expertise in this area could soon become a serious problem, and the waste won’t go away.
Image via Sandford Underground Research Facility
Perhaps graduate earth scientists with a social and environmental conscience shouldn’t dismiss working in these ‘contentious geoscience’ industries out of hand. It isn’t going over to the dark side; it can be a force for positive change.
Luke always knew there was some good in Darth Vader.
Image via Pixabay
The Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter offer some world renowned local geology/mining courses, their promotional video below highlights the need for change in these industries and the different areas you can study within their geology and mining degrees.