If you consult Google you will find four – yes four – pages listing newspaper and magazine reviews of the BBC series “Big Oil v the World”. Despite the series containing much bias and many grievous terminological inexactitudes, all reviews were highly complimentary and two used the words “forensic documentary” – a description I find so profoundly stupid as to impel me belatedly to write this alternative view.
I had originally thought to review all three episodes of the series, but after accomplishing a critical review of the first episode time slipped by and the relevance of further critiques became somewhat questionable. However, the BBC is still promoting the series on iPlayer, so it is still available. Having now seen the series described as being forensic, I resolved to document the considerable failings of the third episode: which I found to be the most fascinating and objectionable of the three, dealing as it does with fracking and the oil industry’s attempt at greenwashing and the overblown resistance to this by climate activists.
Only one of the many reviews (the Telegraph) offered any critical input, questioning the impact on the climate of a single oil company (Exxon). For the series is decidedly misleading: it’s not Big Oil that is being blamed, it’s almost entirely ExxonMobil that is repeatedly singled out, even when it wasn’t the main mover. This is especially true of the last episode of the series, which deals with fracking shale gas (which was done mostly by smaller oil companies, rather than by Big Oil) and attempts by Big Oil to provide itself with a new green image.
ExxonMobil, and other oil companies, argued that they provide a bridge fuel (natural gas) which could aid the transition from coal to carbon-free energy. The BBC programme will have none of this, blaming fossil fuel companies for making climate change worse by releasing increasing amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
Rarely have I experienced such a biased documentary. It was simply appalling. It would seem that someone involved in the “documentary” bears a personal grudge against ExxonMobil. It really makes me question the expertise and independence of those reviewing the series for all of our media.
So let us start. The first part of the third and final episode starts with fracking shales. Let me introduce you to Professor Anthony Ingraffea, who self-identifies as having been important in developing the technology that enabled methane to be produced from shales by fracking. He now regrets this. Ingraffea as an originator of fracking technology you say. Not according to Wikipedia, that makes no mention of him in a rather extensive article on the subject. Ingraffea now says he regrets his input into the technology that was developed to extract gas from shales. In my view he has little to regret.
Consulting Google I found a report of testimony Ingraffea gave in which he is forced to admit that he has absolutely no experience whatsoever with drilling and producing from a fracked shale well (other than observing from a distance). So much for his expertise – another second class academic with no practical experience, pontificating.
The programme moves on to discuss the petroleum industry’s claim that by producing natural gas it was offering a bridging fuel that could be used to replace the more polluting coal. It mentions the American Clean Skies Foundation (under the auspices of the CEO of Chesapeake Oil) which linked with the Sierra Club, whose executive director Carl Pope is also described as regretting his past involvement with “evil oil”.
But now Ingraffea’s involvement in the programme is explained. He was a co-author, with Robert Howarth, of a seminal paper explaining that because of methane leakages from fracked wells, rather than being a solution to climate change, it is no improvement. The methane leakage (described as commonly being 3-5%, sometimes even 7%, of the total) makes producing the natural gas even more climate-damaging than burning coal. It is stated that transporting any gas through pipes will result in leaks.
Now we are introduced to a Sharon Wilson, a Texan lady who drives around in a big Texan car (expelling CO2 as she does) to view producing fracked shale gas wells and storage facilities, with a big black camera. This is no ordinary camera: it is an optical gas-imaging camera that detects methane in the atmosphere. Sharon identifies herself as a methane finder. She writes illustrated reports that she fires off around the country. On the programme we were shown multiple camera images containing swirling brightly coloured areas. It is never explained if these areas are methane or not, but she points her camera at a flare pipe from which methane is being released and burnt stating that her camera is seeing methane. I somehow doubt it.
I didn’t know anything about optical gas imaging cameras before this programme but have learned there are two types – cooled and uncooled. Our Sharon appears to be wielding the cheaper, uncooled, version. This apparently also registers infrared photons, which goes unmentioned, and which suggests that the swirling colours are registering heat rather than methane. I became convinced of this when we saw the last image shown in the programme This lovingly lingers upon uniformly coloured oil storage tanks. Either methane was uniformly seeping through the metal (most unlikely) or it was instead recording sun-warmed oil tanks.
I’m reasonably sure that Sharon knows what she’s doing, but the producers of the programme didn’t. She is rightfully more concerned with unlit flare stacks belching methane but these weren’t shown in the programme. The producers would appear to have chosen picture values over understanding and accuracy.
There are numerous other problems. A methane flare should not register methane, because what is seen is the outer edges of flames where the last remnants of methane have been consumed. What is being seen is the heat being released.
Then there is the matter of the flare stack. If this was a fracked gas well, why should the methane be burnt on site? No this must have been an oil well which co-produced natural gas. The amount of gas produced had insufficient value to separately collect and be sent to market – so it is disposed of by burning it. This is done world over. In other words the viewer of the programme is shown no evidence whatsoever that fracked shale gas wells leak, because he or she wasn’t being shown a fracked shale gas well.
If, as Hogarth and Ingraffea claim, fracked shale gas wells loose several percent of their produced gas to the atmosphere, this seems to be most peculiar. What other industry would willingly allow between three and five percent of its potential revenue to dissipate into thin air? The programme also claims that all pipes and other infrastructure transmitting gases will leak. This is outright rubbish. If it’s not, then god help us if we ever start using hydrogen domestically sending it to our houses through pipes.
Even if ExxonMobil bought into the fracked gas industry, so that it is now the largest producer of this commodity it, together with other majors, ignored fracked gas until it was a proven technology and a significant component of USA fossil fuel supply. It can hardly be blamed for placing large volumes of methane into the atmosphere in the past and making climate change worse, yet this is precisely what the programme claims.
We are barely half way through the programme, but I’m already sick of it. I trust I have already convinced you, dear reader, that the programme is without merit and that those describing it as “forensic” had blinkers on. The problem, as I see it, is that extracts from the programme may well resurface as evidence used to damn Big Oil and especially ExxonMobil. I have already heard the programme being referred to favourably on the BBC News.
What disturbs me most about television programmes like “Big Oil v the World” is just how very unreasonable and unbalanced they are. Reading my Sunday paper today illustrates the great difference between when Elizabeth II was crowned and today, when we live in a world that previously would have been considered magical, thanks to petroleum. We can travel virtually anywhere in our world relatively cheaply, commonly in a matter of hours; we eat delicacies out of season and watch entertainment anywhere and at our convenience. For many of us, hydrocarbons have removed toil from our lives. Petroleum and petroleum products dominate our world and much of it comes from the Big Oil companies. Even critics perform by virtue of Big Oil. We don’t owe Big Oil anything for their products because they are handsomely rewarded for them, but it seems somewhat unfair to blame them for providing what we both desire and need. This is a conundrum that I have not solved but thought much about.
I worked for eight years for two medium sized American oil companies. During my time so employed I sat one conventional oil well that was subsequently stimulated by fracking. Gas from the well was flared. I own no shares in oil companies. All I know about fracked shale gas wells comes from reading or discussions with former colleagues.
If Greens and enviros don’t want shale energy reserves to be exploited by fracking, there are other means
“A late-1960s Atomic Energy Commission plan to extract Wyoming natural gas with five underground nuclear explosions won strong initial support from the oil and gas industry and the federal government. Finally, however, the idea stalled, thanks to the emergence of more information on possible dangers, to Washington politics, and especially to intense local opposition in Sublette County, Wyo., where the devices were slated to be detonated.”
“…..The first explosion was detonated December 10, 1967 near Farmington in northwestern New Mexico. Operation Gasbuggy, as it was called, was a joint effort of the AEC, the U.S. Department of the Interior and El Paso Natural Gas. The detonation of the 29-kiloton device took place 4,240 feet below the surface and created a “chimney” of rubbled rock about 160 feet in diameter and about 330 feet tall. (One kiloton is equivalent to a blast yield of 1,000 tons of TNT. By comparison, the bomb dropped by the U.S. Army Air Force on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 yielded around 15 kilotons of explosive power; the one dropped on Nagasaki yielded around 21 kilotons.)
A month after the detonation, a well was drilled into the chimney and natural gas was withdrawn. More than 200 million cubic feet of gas was extracted in a little over a year, and all of it was flared, or burned, at the site. This detonation was only intended as an experiment to determine how effective the explosion was in stimulating a reservoir of natural gas. The gas company determined it was successful.”
The story continues here:
[200 million cubic feet of gas is approx 62GWh.]
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Apologies for the fact that your first attempt went in to spam, and well done for copying it to the clipboard so that you succeeded at the second attempt.
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You’re a trooper to have watched this on our behalf. I did not have the stomach for it. Nothing you have said surprises me.
I’ve been ‘bitten’ by the vagaries of WordPress before! 😉
Alan, I second John’s comment. I haven’t watched it myself (I couldn’t – I don’t have a TV licence). I trust episode three is the end of the series, and you don’t have to put yourself through it any more.
Alan; thanks for wasting your time on our behalf!
There’s a point about methane which I have posted on a variety of blogs without, so far, crashing and burning.
From what I have read, methane releases are a non-problem because water vapour blankets the absorption spectra of methane almost completely. Since there’s 1000s of times more water vapour in the atmosphere than methane, its effect on temperatures is negligible to zero.
Assuming this is scientifically correct, the many “scientists” promoting scares about methane must be aware of it but….. It just proves the adage: “don’t expect someone to understand if their salary depends on not doing so”.
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Alan, thanks for this post.
think somebody said this was made by an American team for the BBC. (maybe wrong).
as you say “it’s almost entirely ExxonMobil that is repeatedly singled out”
well it started many years ago – https://zephr.newscientist.com/article/dn10888-report-singles-out-exxonmobil-over-climate-scepticism/
snippet – “In his letter, which was widely circulated in the UK media, Bob Ward estimated that ExxonMobil had paid more than $2.9 million.. bla bla”
John, Mark, Mike and df,
this indeed was a difficult review to write, but it was not difficult to first watch. I quite enjoy seeing what the “other side” have to say and picking holes in their message. It keeps my critical facilities sharpened. This third episode was very dense and required several more viewings in order to get the details right.This I did not enjoy. In the end I found it just too difficult to complete so cut it short. But I’m reasonably content with the end result.
I hope there is not another climate programme waiting in the wings, although parts of the Attenborough icy planet has elements verging closely in this direction.
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If you would like an antidote to this stuff , State of Happiness on BBC iPlayer dramatises the story of people in Stavanger during the early years of finding offshore oil. Based on real events it highlights the risk and rewards of hydrocarbon development with no mention of climate change! Well it is from Norwegian TV
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I think the title of the Norwegian series, State of Happiness, is ironic, dealing as it does with the main character losing out on a prestigious job because she is a woman who later splits from her American husband and the series finishes with a brilliantly portrayed reenactment of an offshore platform disaster where more than 130 people lose their lives.
Nevertheless, like you I would strongly recommend watching it. I didn’t miss the absence of climate change mentions.
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I liked their attempts to address some of the technical issues although necessarily somewhat simplistically. In Series 1, poring over seismic output and geologic maps must have got your pulses racing Alan. I also liked that they used actual names for the offshore sites such as Ekofisk and the drilling platform :
I would like, if I may, to comment upon your remark, “We don’t owe Big Oil anything for their products because they are handsomely rewarded for them, but it seems somewhat unfair to blame them for providing what we both desire and need. This is a conundrum that I have not solved but thought much about.”
It is indeed a puzzle but, perhaps, part of the answer is to be found in our understanding of group-think and its near relative, propaganda. In his book [Ref. 1] about Europe, austerity and political instability Varoufakis briefly mentions a former professor at the LSE, “Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that ‘the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance’.”
If, as I suspect, much of the West, especially the mainstream media, has succumbed to the influence of group-think and propaganda relating to climate change / energy policy then it is not surprising that we have programmes such as ‘Big Oil v The World’. After decades of such propaganda we should not be surprised that the quality of the media’s discourse is essentially that of a Christmas pantomime with fossil fuels playing the role of the wicked sisters – boo, hiss – while renewable energy plays the fairy godmother (hoorah!) who will save us from the big, bad wolf of voracious carbon consumption. [I hope that I have here correctly remembered my pantomime iconography.]
I wonder whether group-think and propaganda help to account for the question posed by John Constable at the end of this quote from page 1 of his recent GWPF report [Ref. 2]:-
“… the war in Ukraine has brought the failures of the EU’s climate policies into sharper focus, and sooner than might have been expected. But this does not mean that the harm of the policies is itself of recent origin. On the contrary, the environmental policies have been damaging to the EU’s interests and advantageous to those of its rivals from the very beginning. As this study will demonstrate, the enthusiastic adoption of the green agenda in the 1990s and early 2000s has effectively produced gradual industrial and economic disarmament. That makes the error all the more extraordinary, but it also indicates that the EU must now deal, not just with short-run damage of recent origin, but also with the harms accumulated over two decades and its resultant enfeeblement relative to Europe’s competitors. Arresting the decline will be difficult; recovering the situation entirely may be impossible.
What was the EU Commission thinking of when they blundered into these disastrous errors?”
Disclosure. I worked for about a year for Brown & Root as a recent graduate, including some 50 days at the Ekofisk oilfield. I subsequently worked for most of my career for Rolls-Royce (the aero-engine manufacturer) where I specialised in advanced electrical machines, particularly for “more electric” applications.
1. Yanis Varoufakis, “And the Weak Suffer What They Must”, Vintage, 2017, especially page 245.
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Not completely O/T:
“Big oil’s toxic emissions from flaring undeclared”
It’s all there, isn’t it? “Big oil”. “Toxic” (the mot du jour). Which is a shame, because if you read on, the story is potentially a very worrying one, and the BBC (if its reporting is accurate) is right to bring it to the world’s attention. But “big oil”? They just can’t help themselves. I’m still waiting for the use of “big wind” and “big climate”, but I guess I’ll have a long wait.
Mark it’s interesting that in the BBC programme only big oil is being chastised for flaring unusable natural gas co-produced with oil. The major players in the Middle East are national oil companies who I’m sure flare the same gas but get a free pass from the article/broadcast. The excuse offered by big oil is that they are not responsible for flaring (responsibility lies with smaller companies -sometimes fostered onto the big oil companies by the host country government). Responsibility probably most lies with the host government for not enforcing strict regulations.
The reason gas is flared is because it is uneconomic. It’s no use the BBC arguing that the total gas flared is enormous and could replace most of the missing Russian gas in Europe. The cost of collecting all that gas and sending it to market is more than the gas could be sold for, so is uneconomic. It’s also no use comparing the situation with Norway. Norway exerts tighter control over its industry and lies much closer to willing markets (I believe there is a gas pipeline to Poland).
The health of local people is clearly being adversely affected. But before I cast full blame I would wish to be reassured that the local towns existed before the oil development: they didn’t grow as a result of local jobs being created. This is a common occurrence world-wide.
There is much else, but I’ll leave it here for now.
Big oil is coming in for a right BBC beating recently.
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Well we do have Kier Starmer. Or we do at least have his Great British Energy fuelled by great British wind.