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.