Oil and climate change, how we prevent the inevitable

by Wilder Burke

Our world is in crisis. Everyday we edge further and further to the point of no return. This issue can be seen universally whether it be hotter summers or smaller winters. Climate Change is real, and it’s affecting us now. If our world is in crisis, why does it seem like we are not acting? It’s because of people who profit from fossil fuels. While we all see the ways they claim they will help reduce emissions, their spending doesn’t really add up with that claim. For example, Shell claimed that they will have reduced their gas emissions to 50% by 2030. And while that is an amazing claim, 70% of messaging from Shell is pro “green”, while only 10% of its spending is on low carbon investments. It doesn’t add up.

Today I want to see the extent to which companies that profit from the warming of our earth will go to stop progreen inventions and actions. I will be interviewing a green chemical engineer, Terry Brix, my grandfather, who has always been an inspiration to me. His talks with me about chemical engineering have been a highlight of my experience with him. He has had experience working for Battelle and will discuss with me about what they and many other companies have done to shut pro green actions down. He comes from the small town of Havre, Montana, and got a bachelors in chemical engineering at Montana State University. From there after working for Battelle he made his own companies, working in Japan and China, the newest company being OCO. A chemical engineer is in summary, an engineer who focuses on the chemical properties of raw materials and converting them into a variety of products. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Wilder Burke: What is a chemical engineer and what do they do? 

Terry Brix:  Chemical engineering is a recent development in the 30s. Before that there were mechanical engineers that built Hardware related things, pots, pans, pipes, that kind of stuff. But in the 1930s, it became apparent that there was more chemistry going on and  more plants being built because before the turn of the century, you didn’t really have any petrochemicals at all and there had been no invention of haberbosch, which is the process to fix nitrogen. So mankind was running out of fertilizer and haber bosch was invented in Germany. But then mechanical engineers started working on it and they started building these plants and then World War 1 happened. Then there was poison gas and munitions so chemical engineering actually got started because of the oil industry and because of the wars. And so They developed this new profession, which combined the hardware side of the equations, like what is needed to do to get a chemical from A, to B. And the chemistry side, which is something that mechanical engineers had no experience with so that was a hybrid of the mechanical engineering world, (math, physics, chemistry and materials science) and the chemistry world which is separations and figuring out how to manufacture something.

WB: What does chemical engineering mean to you?

TB: Well, chemical engineering is the ultimate magic trick, because you can sit down with any intelligent human being that knows a little bit about science or is curious and all of a sudden, you start thinking, I have an idea and how this might work? Then you go and start putting it together. Chemical engineering  allows you to take an idea and put it into reality and It gives you the biggest bag of tools a person could ever need.You can work on computer science, mathematics and chemicals. Its multi uses are its greatest strength. 

WB: How have chemical engineers like yourself been struggling to face big oil companies?

TB: Big oil companies succeed because of what they have. They have subsidies, public lobbies. All we had was chemistry, and the chemistry kept working. So the biggest thing is ignorance, and also vested interests. Too much money is often spent when people work on green alternatives. For many investors there was a risk factor which is that they don’t have the same subsidies like these other companies do. But that never happens because at the end of the day this is competitive technology, so if you ever tried to associate yourself with a big oil company or a thing that profits from fossil fuels, it’s likely the product never goes anywhere because they don’t want it to go anywhere.

So, the competition other than those oil companies has been venture capital and they’re not very long term players. They always want to turn around their money in about three or four years, unfortunately. It’s like raising kids, you can’t start a child, and then three years later expect that child to be a billionaire. It takes 10-20 years to build a company. So that’s why you gotta survive before you can do anything else.

International companies are what are saving the green scape of engineering. They are complementary because when we have a process like ours, they love to tag team with us because their own countries don’t have the resources that could develop that process. When my company worked with South Africa, they gave lots of funding to help our process, which was converting sugars into oil.

WB: How has the oil industry put down chemical engineers?

TB: Within the United States, there are a few ways they do.  Number one,  bioethanol, which is a form of fuel made from plants. At first the American Petroleum Institute fought tooth and nail against this, but the Midwest senators over a period of time began to rise in the want for bioethanol production. Anybody else making oil, voted down because it would take away from their profit. Eventually, the midwest convinced everyone to enter bioethanol. It worked very well. But you are using corn, which people eat.

So now you are using corn that people and animals eat, and are turning it into fuel. Because we have less corn, there will be a larger price increase in animal feed. This is already a big no for investors because you are ruining something that is in their minds “perfectly fine”. Also when looking at the true green eco friendly position of it, you are making something called ammonia fertilizer to make this corn. Which can only be produced through natural oil. So suddenly, you are damaging the price of animal feed, and aren’t really making a dent in stopping global warming.

The sad thing about all this oil is every single part of oil that’s raised is sooner or later burnt. It either ends up as plastic. It’s permanent in the environment or is burned as a fuel.

WB: Do you think chemical engineers have a responsibility to help prevent climate change?

TB: Oh I think everybody has a responsibility to prevent climate change. Once they learn and are taught these important concepts,  there’s not a chemical or mechanical engineer or probably even an electrical engineer that doesn’t understand carbon dioxide and its effects on global warming. We don’t have that many chemical engineers in the United States. I think there’s 300,000 chemical Engineers. Let’s put that into a perspective. Iceland is about 350,000 people. So the good news is that we all sort of understand each other, so you can have around 1 million of us around the world and we can all work together to help the climate. 

WB: What do you think of some of the alternative solutions to climate change?

TB: Ultimately at the end of the day wind and solar, don’t cut it, because a solar power unit that at maximum can only work 12 hours a day or 8 hours a day depending on when the sun comes up, when the sun goes down. The reason why we have power 24/7 is because there are backups like coal and nuclear power plants waiting to help give power. We need to pioneer new solutions because these ones are just not sustainable enough.

WB: What is your advice for consumers and the purchasing of products?

TB: The main advice I have is to be aware of what companies are really pro “green” and others that are using it as a facade to further marketing and sales. Because at the end of the day, an electric car, while posing as great for the environment, has to get that energy from somewhere. That’s where energy from power plants and coal plants which are damaging the environment come into play. What we need to understand is that this problem can’t be solved in a day, a month, a year, or even many decades. It needs persistence from the younger generations to be able to say no to climate change and stand against the larger companies’ malpractice and dangerous schemes. 

We also need to understand that carbon dioxide and methane are the two main issues the younger generation will be facing. We often see carbon dioxide as the villain but it’s a henchman compared to methane. Methane is the big ugly guy. The reason why carbon is fought more is because there are more ways you can control it. Meanwhile, methane comes out of everything.