Geologist Richie Miller says it’s time to put down the drill and return to geology’s founding principles.
Richie Miller volunteers for ECO in his spare time.
The word ‘Geology’ is derived from Ancient Greek, simply meaning ‘the study of the Earth’. True, this is a pretty broad starting point for any study, however, it is precisely this idea of investigating the Earth’s form as a whole that makes it so fascinating. Founder of the modern scientific geological principles James Hutton believed the Earth should be viewed as a single organism, a planet that for millions of years has been, and continues to be, formed by cyclical processes and interactions between land, ocean and biosphere. Geology is a scientific discipline with its historical foundations firmly rooted in a holistic approach towards the Earth.
Sadly, the word ‘geology’ these days has often become synonymous with the word ‘extraction’. Many geologists, as I did, end up working for the mining and fossil fuels industry which in contrast to Hutton’s idea takes an atomistic approach to the Earth, segmenting and removing the parts it can sell while frequently neglecting the often devastating knock-on environmental and social consequences, both locally and regionally. Funding of universities and research institutions by this industry has narrowed the focus of geological investigation towards these extractive activities.
When I left university I went to work in Australia as a geologist for a mineral exploration company. Many students from UK universities made this journey – extraction of metals, coal, oil and gas was where the jobs were. However, it was in Australia where I saw first-hand the violence committed toward the land on colonised territory at the open-cast ‘Superpit’ gold mine (the name says it all) in Kalgoorlie. I began to let go of my prior justification for extraction: ‘we need these resources, don’t we?’. I could no longer accept the trade-off: resources at the cost of the environment and a dignified existence for those who live on the land.
I moved to New Zealand looking towards a more conservationist use for my subject. I began working as a geologist for an environmental consultancy firm with clients from the oil and gas industry. Essentially my job was to investigate land and water for pollution caused by industrial activity and assist with any clean-up if the pollution was deemed a risk to the public or the environment. This sounds like a useful job and unfortunately it is a necessary one. However, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem: why should we accept the risk of pollution to our land, water and air in the first place? Environmental consultancies do not, after all, speak out to condemn the continued extraction of fossil fuels as the major contributor to the climate change crisis because these extractors are paying customers. Fossil fuels companies, like any other business, assess risk by using profitability as a measure. If the profit out-weighs the cost of a few ‘minor’ environmental clean-ups, then it was worth the risk. If a pollution event occurs, these companies can say they had the mandatory safety control measures in place and that they will do better to prevent the same happening next time. What if next time they’re extracting or storing fossil fuels in your neighbourhood? Is that a risk that you are willing to take?
I feel that my experiences as a geologist are indicative of how the extraction industry has cornered geological investigation for their own use to profit at the expense of the environment. This starts with our educational institutions where there is plenty of evidence showing the grip the extraction industry has on our brightest scientists.
New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes, such as Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), have commercial arms whose clients are fossil fuels companies. In November 2015 Greenpeace activists occupied NIWA’s ocean research ship Tangaroa in protest at its use for petroleum exploration surveys off the east coast of the North Island1. GNS on the other hand sells consultancy services to petroleum customers ranging from “regional assessments of permit areas right through to post drill analysis on your well”2. GNS also joined many other organisations including the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in sponsoring the 2015 New Zealand Petroleum Summit, a large get together of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels giants where they troubleshoot and discuss “petroleum investment opportunities in New Zealand”3.
New Zealand’s tertiary education is also locked in. University of Auckland’s School of Environment lists fossil fuels extractors Statoil, OMV Group and New Zealand Energy Corp within their research sponsors4. Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences offers a Masters degree in Petroleum Geoscience with a “full-time research project in conjunction with GNS Science or a petroleum company”5.
The devastating effects of climate change are rapidly increasing in magnitude due to industrial pollution and the victims of this devastation are not the polluters. Endangered ecosystems are being destroyed to dig up more mineral wealth. Never before has it been so starkly clear the importance of viewing the earth in a holistic manner. We need to understand that human interference with the Earth in such violent ways has significant consequences.
Divestment in the fossil fuels industry is overdue across all our educational and research institutions. It is time for geology to put down the drill-bit, take a step back and once again recapture the holistic principles upon which it was founded.