Dispatches from the end of the oil century


Jeremy Leggett




The Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College of Science and Technology is an elite training house for oil and mining companies. There, within its Victorian corridors in Kensington, for more than a decade, I taught the ways and culture of the hunt for oil. I helped to turn out petroleum geologists and petroleum engineers in their hundreds. Along the way, I supplemented my income by consulting for the companies whose future servants I was helping to train. It seems scarcely credible to me now, but once I was able to buy my daughter a horse. Two, if I am honest. One summer I actually worked for an oil company. I was a suit-and-tie commuter in Tokyo, the sole foreigner in a Kasumigaseki skyscraper owned by Japex, the Japan Petroleum Exploration Company. The only thing I was excused from was daily performance of the company exercises.

In truth, I had discovered a great romance. Looking back, I have a fancy now that it stemmed from something primeval. I remember the hunter’s thrill I felt in Baluchistan, watching smears of oil seeping from the ground. I felt the same thing in that Tokyo office, looking at a possible trap on a seismic record or a satellite image. Then there were the hunter’s weapons. The ships and trucks pumping seismic energy into the ground, building pictures of the hidden subsurface. The drill rigs and downhole instrument packages probing for the quarry. On top of that, the pipelines and the supertankers carrying the object of the hunt to market - via oil refineries, those most complex meccano sets - where finally, of course, the prize could be burned: in engines, all kinds of fascinating engines.

At the time I loved it all. I was a young academic in an industry-focused university, surrounded by oil-industry megastars. The professor of petroleum geology at the Royal School of Mines was a retired Chief Geologist from BP, a legend in the business. When he first arrived, I would talk to him in the common room quite faint with admiration. His predecessor, before my time, was another legend. He had found an oilfield in Pakistan, and taken a financial stake in the small company that drilled it. When the well had hit oil, he threw an impromptu champagne party for half the faculty in a luxury Kensington hotel. Lectures were cancelled for days afterwards.

Although my teaching and consultancy had much to do with oil, my research was in what academics tend to refer to as blue skies: knowledge which has no obvious immediate commercial relevance. My subject was the geological history of oceans. How I loved that too. In the modern oceans, I studied the unfolding history of the planet from sediment cores drilled under as much as five kilometres of water, recording in their thin layers stories of climate and life on a dynamic Earth over hundreds of millions of years. I studied the deposits of ancient oceans, forced from their deep-water origins in mountains areas marking where continents once collided. My research took me on scientific cruise ships in the Pacific and to the mountain belts of Europe, Japan, and Pakistan. I worked in particular with Japanese and French scientists, learning to appreciate such novelties as sashimi and Bordeaux. I was one happy camper.

But during the mid 1980s, I began to notice a series of worrying papers and articles appearing in the scientific journals about the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Translating the carefully coded language I was reading, it seemed that atmospheric physicists were becoming concerned about that burning so much coal, oil and gas - the carbon, or fossil, fuels – risked turning up the planetary thermostat too high, destablising global climate. I knew a thing or two about climate - from the bottom up, as it were - having studied so many stories of the past in the oceanic record. I knew how slowly the natural climatic rhythms of the planet worked. Now the people looking at climate from the top down were saying there was a danger of changes of a rapidity never before seen. I felt my own concern rising by the month.

1988 was the year that broke the mold. The news about global warming that summer became impossible to ignore. I felt my sense of mission, future, and professional identity eroding with every new report I read. At first, I tried to reconcile the information with what I saw as my life’s calling. I petitioned my colleagues in the Royal School of Mines to let me to start giving a few environmental science lectures. The students, I argued, should be aware of what was brewing in the atmospheric sciences. Quite apart from the question of whether or not it might be a good idea to give them an all-round education, this environmentalism business might hold implications for their job prospects. My colleagues reluctantly agreed, but immediately took to referring to the lectures as Dr Leggett’s liberal-studies classes.

The following year, the fault lines growing by increments in my sense of professional identity reached failure point. One day early in 1989, I stood in front of a class of forty undergraduates giving a lecture on an oilfield in California. I had an interesting hunter’s tale to tell that morning: how the oil had been trapped below ground over millions of years; how Chevron had discovered the monster oilfield long after many companies had concluded there was nothing there; the technical tricks they had used; the industrial espionage they had to evade from their sister companies in order to keep their discovery secret until they had bought up as much as they could of the rest of the oilfield. The rows of young people sat listening quietly. And as I stared down at the upturned faces, I suddenly had the feeling that I could not go on. That day, the tension between my growing environmental concerns and my job description in the Royal School of Mines came to a head. I went straight back to my office and turned to the job pages in New Scientist magazine.

The events of 1988 had burrowed further into my conscience than I had admitted to myself. In June, a group of climate-change and ozone-depletion experts meeting in Toronto had issued a statement in which they concluded that the global warming being primed by the burning of oil, coal and gas could combine with acid rain and loss of ozone to unleash consequences, as they put it, second only to nuclear war. It seemed entirely logical. In the aftermath of the shock discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985, the world knew by then that CFC gases destroyed ozone in the atmosphere, exposing life on the planet to growing amounts of ultraviolet radiation. So too we knew that greenhouse gases trapped heat. There was no scientific doubt about that, then as now: in fact, if it were not for a natural greenhouse effect, the world would be too cold to support life. We also knew, because measurements showed it the world over, that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases were rising rapidly, so enhancing the natural greenhouse effect. Carbon fuel combustion was undoubtedly the main culprit: it produced most of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. The decade of the 1980s had already been significantly warmer, on the global average, than any other in more than a hundred years of records. Climate and the global average temperature were naturally variable, to be sure, but suspicions were growing among the scientific community in 1988 that the hot years of the 1980s were the first faint footprint of global warming.

The northern-hemisphere summer of 1988 was rife with potential foretastes of what lay ahead if we kept turning up that thermostat. In the US Midwest an appalling drought spread misery through the farmlands. In Yellowstone Park, with drought at its worst for over a hundred years, the worst-ever forest fires saw 25,000 firefighters battling walls of flame up to 60 metres high. Leading NASA scientist Jim Hansen testified in Congress that it was time to stop waffling and say that global warming had already started. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, giving a speech to the Royal Society in London, summarised precisely what I had begun to fear. "We may have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself," she warned. Here was a woman not otherwise known for eco-doom-mongering.

And there I stood, that day, giving my lecture on the giant offshore California oilfield, teaching the students once again new tricks in the search for oil, as though concerns about the global environment - my occasional liberal studies classes notwithstanding - were somehow just a side show. My entire professional life had, until then, involved training young people like these to go forth and find fossil fuels, to add carbon as heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. To quite literally fuel a threat to the future, and risk bequeathing their children an unliveable world. It had to stop.

Within weeks of scanning New Scientist’s jobs pages I found that the international environmental group Greenpeace wanted a scientist in-house in their UK office to give technical advice to their campaigners. The issues were becoming increasingly complex, they said. The penalties for technical errors were becoming increasingly severe for environmental groups. Credibility was all.

So it was that Greenpeace offered me the chance of moving from one of the most conservative universities in the world to one of the most radical environment groups.

I jumped at it.






The Early Warning

October 1989 – December 1990


October 1989, Berlin

My first sight of the Berlin Wall etched itself in my mind for life. The killing grounds looked surreal, neon lit in a misty one a.m. light as I rattled past on an empty train. Through bleary eyes I stared at the concrete ramparts either side of the sandy no-man’s land, the drapes of coiled razor wire, the machine-gun towers trained on that murderous hundred yard gap between tyranny and hope. It was my first time in Berlin, and I felt an acute sense of unreality. My world, and the world in general, were both changing with bewildering speed. I was about to fly to glasnost-gripped Moscow, to work with Russian colleagues in a newly-formed Greenpeace office, the setting up of which Mikhail Gorbachev had himself sanctioned. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear annihilation, seemed miraculously to be evaporating. More and more people were realising - Gorbachev seemingly among them - that we were entering a new era of security threat. The Soviet leader had been talking about the dangers of global warming in his speeches for several years.

Looking at the sombre course of the Wall east of the Friedrichstrasse in October 1989, my abiding thought was about how anachronistic it was. It did not remotely occur to me, though, that within just weeks people would be taking sledgehammers to those machine-gun towers. Before the Berlin Wall came down, anyone predicting its fall would have been laughed at. Even when the Wall had fallen, no pundit, anywhere that I am aware of, came close to predicting what subsequently happened, once that particular engine-of-change had been kick started. Similarly, predict today that the world is on track for a collapse in the use of carbon fuels, that huge amounts are going to be staying in the ground unburned - that mushrooming multi-billion dollar markets in solar energy will emerge before the next century is very old at all - and you can expect to be greeted with expert mirth.

But so it was with the pundits, in October 1989, about the toppling of the Berlin Wall, and the fall of Soviet communism. Neither institution had been quickly undermined. They had shown few signs that their foundations were crumbling. But fall they did, and when they went, they went quickly.


May 1990, Berkshire, UK

The first crack in the foundations of the carbon era will be traceable to events in a country hotel in Berkshire during the spring of 1990. In this rural retreat, a hundred scientists gathered for three days to put the finishing touches to a document destined to become one of the most important scientific reports ever compiled. They came from government and university labs all over the world. They picked their location hoping for a seclusion befitting their sober task. But long before they had completed their deliberations, TV news crews and radio and print journalists were thronging in the lobby of the hotel, waiting impatiently for the scientists to emerge from the conference hall where they were at work. From a seat at the back of the hall, I knew I was watching history in the making.

In 1988, faced with growing concerns about climate change, the United Nations General Assembly had set up a panel to advise governments on the issue. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC as it was to become universally known, represented a consultation process unprecedented both in size and scope. Its mission was to pool the opinions of as many scientists and policy experts as possible, in as many countries as possible, and to thrash out over the next 18 months consensus reports on the science of global warming, the probable impacts, and the potential policy responses.

I was not alone in observing the final drafting of the IPCC’s historic first Scientific Assessment Report. In other seats at the back of the room sat eleven scientists from the oil, coal, and chemical industries, including two from Exxon, one from Shell, and one from BP. Although they were allowed to take part as observers, this role was loosely defined, since they were permitted to make suggestions for wording as the text evolved. So too were I and the one other suitably-qualified environment-group scientist present that day, Dr Dan Lashof of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

The scientists were now working on the most important few paragraphs they would produce, the summary. Dr Brian Flannery, representing the International Petroleum Industries’ Environmental Conservation Association, but on the payroll of Exxon, took the microphone. The draft, he reminded the room, said that 60 to 80 percent cuts would be needed in carbon dioxide emissions in order to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of the gas. But this, he felt, required clarification, in the face of all the uncertainties about the behaviour of carbon in the climate system.

Scientists from the UK, Germany, and the US - some of the most eminent climatologists in the world - now spoke. Nobody agreed with Flannery. Of course there were uncertainties, but, if your goal was to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, those uncertainties did not undermine the need for deep cuts in emissions.

Flannery took the microphone again. "The range of model results isn’t any better justified now than it was ten years ago," he asserted, a didactic edge appearing in his voice. "The range is quite scientifically uncertain. This should be stated as such in the executive summary."

A leading climate modeller at the UK Met Office, frowning, waved his arm to attract the Chairman’s attention. "I’d like to dispute that, Mr Chairman. The range is much better than it was three years ago, much less ten." The Met Office man looked annoyed.

Others agreed. The discussions moved on.

The man with the most difficult and most crucial job that day was the Chairman, Dr John Houghton, Director-General of the Met Office. Houghton came to a critical sentence in the executive summary. "Can we say we are certain that greenhouse-gas emissions at present rates will lead to warming?" he asked.

He was greeted by a roomful of nodding heads.


The next day, the UK Prime Minister was due to hold a press conference at the Met Office, not far from the scientists’ retreat. Dr John Houghton had left the hotel the previous evening to brief her on the content of the scientists’ report.

Margaret Thatcher was not a woman known for her concern about matters ecological. But today things were to change. Adopting one of her most dramatic expressions, the Prime Minister proceeded to rewrite a key paragraph of her place in history. "Today," she told the scribbling British press corps, "with the publication of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have an authoritative early warning system: an agreed assessment from some three hundred of the world’s leading scientists of what is happening to the world’s climate. They confirm that greenhouse gases are increasing substantially as a result of man’s activities, that this will warm the Earth’s surface with serious consequences for us all." It was, she said, a report of historic significance. What it predicted would affect our everyday lives.

She moved on to the impacts. "There would surely be a great migration of population away from areas of the world liable to flooding, and from areas of declining rainfall and therefore of spreading desert. Those people will be crying out not for oil wells but water."

The next day, looking at the banner headlines in the morning papers, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Martians had invaded the planet. "Race to Save Our World," shrieked the Daily Express, the government’s favourite tabloid. "Britain takes lead in crusade against greenhouse effect," the subhead announced proudly. All the other tabloids ran headlines of the same ilk. Although the weightier papers did not adopt quite the same apocalyptic tone, they came close.


The authoritative early warning, bad though it was, could have been worse. The complexity of the climate system is such that there are many scientific uncertainties over enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. This makes the issue, at heart, one of threat assessment. The world may just get lucky, and find the resulting climate changes are not quite so bad as most scientists estimate. Or the dice may role unkindly: they could be a whole lot worse.

Dan Lashof and I went into that crucial 1990 IPCC meeting with great hopes that the worst-case analysis would be spelt out more starkly than it had been in the review copy of the report which had been sent to attendees ahead of the meeting. We submitted papers to the IPCC, itemising our concerns. What worried us most involved the feedbacks in the climate system - the processes which can be triggered in a warming world which either amplify the warming (positive feedbacks) or suppress it (negative feedbacks). Our concern was that the former might end up swamping the latter.

We were far from alone in that fear. Such concerns had been fairly well explored in the scientific journals by this time. For example, a warming world could trigger extra emissions of greenhouse gases from the vast repositories of carbon in nature: from warming oceans, drying soils, dying forests, melting permafrost. These feedbacks were difficult - indeed often impossible - to quantify, and were for the most part excluded from computer models of climate. But, we felt, should their role in the climate threat-assessment not be more clearly flagged? Should not the worst-case analysis - a synergistic dominance of such feedbacks, uncompensated by negative feedbacks, be clearly spelt out for policymakers?

The section on confidence in predictions in the 1990 report included a carefully-worded conclusion about natural sources of greenhouse gases, such as rotting vegetation, and "sinks" where carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere, such as growing forests and plankton in the ocean. Both sources and sinks were sensitive to a change in climate, the report read, and so they might substantially modify future concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. "It appears likely," the summary read, "that, as climate warms, these feedbacks will lead to an overall increase, rather than decrease, in natural greenhouse gas abundances. For this reason, climate change is likely to be greater than the estimates we have given."

But that was all the draft report said. The policymakers were left to read between the lines for themselves. They would have a difficult job. The 3° C rise in global average temperature estimated in the mid-range of the climate-model forecasts for the next century was described throughout the report as the "best-guess" estimate.

Just as Exxon’s Brian Flannery and other industry scientists tried throughout that meeting to water down the IPCC science assessment, so I and Dan Lashof tried to beef it up with references to the potential for feedback amplifications of warming. Choosing my moment as best I could in the final session, I urged the scientists to mention specifically what the very worst case might in principle be for a world where emissions were not cut deeply - a runaway, unstoppable, greenhouse effect. Policymakers should have this spelt out for them clearly, I argued. If they understood the worst-case, they would be more likely to buy insurance against it in the policies they came up with.

John Houghton asked the meeting, with clear reluctance, if there was any support for this view.

An Austrian climatologist volunteered that in his opinion there was no way that a runaway greenhouse effect was possible. In any event, said a sea-level expert from the University of East Anglia, the media would seize on it and sensationalise it. That was all Houghton needed, and he dealt with me as circumspectly as he had earlier dealt with the oil and coal industry participants.

Exxon’s Brian Flannery fired the parting shot. This was simply scaremongering, he said.

Later, we came to a section in the report where specific biological feedbacks were described. The Director of Marine Sciences at the UK Government’s Natural Environment Research Council wanted to strengthen a reference to one potential feedback, known as the plankton-multiplier effect. North Atlantic ocean circulation might turn off as a result of global warming, he said. If that happened, the implications for reduced phytoplankton productivity, and consequent boosting of atmospheric carbon dioxide, would be serious. He wanted that made clear.

I took the plunge again. That was the kind of thing that made it so important to spell out the potential sum of the prospective positive feedbacks, I said. There were a number of feedbacks like the one the Research Council man had stressed. For example, some reference should be made to the potential size, and vulnerability, of the methane hydrate reservoir in the Arctic.

Methane hydrates are ice-like substances which form under the permafrost and in the Arctic ocean, and lock up a vast amount of methane under pressure. Warm them up, and they would be adding significantly to all the methane being emitted by humankind from gas pipelines, rice paddies, and other places.

I could see frowns aplenty around the room. It was now the turn of Bob Watson of NASA, the lead US scientist at the meeting, to guard the "best guess." Watson had headed the team which had a few years earlier proved the link between CFCs and ozone depletion in the Antarctic ozone hole. "I have a problem with this," he said. "We mustn’t give policymakers the impression that there’s no point. We don’t win that way."

Houghton seized on his point. "Yes," he said. "The media will pick up this kind of thing and use it as a stick."

Late in the day, the contingent of Dutch scientists at the meeting submitted a written statement, suggesting fresh wording. They too were worried, it seemed, that the "best guess" might be interpreted as something more concrete than it was meant to be, blinding politicians to the fact that it might prove to be an underestimate. "Despite many uncertainties," they wrote, "we are concerned about our finding that future rates of climate change may exceed any rate of change ever experienced by humankind in the past. There are no reasons to expect that humankind itself or the ecosystems, on whose functioning humankind depends, will be able to adapt to such rates of change. A further point of great concern is that, although we have confidence in the results of our assessment, the complexity of the system may give rise to surprises. The prime example of such a surprise is the totally unexpected appearance of the ozone hole, notwithstanding many previous assessments of the state of knowledge of the ozone layer."

The reference to the "scope for surprises" made it into the report. But without elaboration.


I left the meeting with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was dissatisfied that the scientists, as a group, had pulled their punches on spelling out what they thought the worst case involved. I knew from private conversations that many of them considered amplifying feedbacks to be a huge danger. Yet they couldn’t bring themselves to spell this out graphically in the report which was going to provide the basis for negotiations by well over a hundred governments. In any threat assessment involving military security, the worst-case analysis would always be considered. Indeed, most governments would probably end up basing their defence policies on it: buying perpetual multi-billion dollar insurance against invasion in the form of military procurement. Why should this environmental-security threat assessment be any different? After all, global warming held the potential to seize territory and lay waste to land no less efficiently than an invading army. Given time, sea-level rise, drought, flood, and pestilence could do that job just as well as tanks and bombers.

Notwithstanding this, I knew that the world had been provided with a warning on global warming that would be difficult to ignore. Governments and industry progressives were now going to have to do something about greenhouse-gas emissions, sooner or later, that was clear. If Margaret Thatcher could react the way she had in accepting the threat, other world leaders might do the same.

The oil and coal industries, and their dependents such as the auto and electric utility industries, now had a big problem. The IPCC scientists had spelt out clearly in their report what would be needed to stop the inexorable rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: deep cuts in emissions. This particularly applied to carbon dioxide. The passage of the report which would clearly be most quoted in the years ahead pointed out that if atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were to be stabilised at present day levels, themselves higher than they had ever been for at least 160,000 years, emissions would need to be cut by 60 percent or more, immediately. The longer the world delayed these cuts, the deeper they would need to be.

Entering the 1990s, the oil industry had enjoyed more than a century of hegemony. Yet in over a hundred years of oil burning, we were still not half way through all the oil ever found. We had burned less than 700 billion barrels, with well over 1,000 billion barrels mapped out below ground ready to be pumped up and used. To that could be added all the oil yet to be found, perhaps another 700 billion barrels according to industry estimates at the time. At an annual burn rate in 1990 of some 22 billion barrels, the oil industry clearly had enough reserves, and as-yet undiscovered deposits, to reasonably expect a repeat performance spanning most of the twenty second century - a second oil century. How would the great companies created during the first oil century react to the prospect of being deprived of a second century?

For the coal industry, the arithmetic of carbon was still more daunting. By any definition of deep cuts in emissions in the decades to come, the vast majority of 8,000 billion tonnes of coal deposits then estimated to exist on the planet would have to remain below ground unburned.

Like the tobacco industry before them when faced with evidence of ruinous impact of their product, the choice for the carbon industries was stark: denial, obfuscation - and worse - on the one hand, and open embrace of a paradigm shift in their core business on the other.