Critical GIScientists, we need to talk about GIS and the oil industry…

The Guardian’s Political Science blog post by Alice Bell about the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Natural Environment Research Council and Shell, reminded me of a nagging issue that has concerned me for a while: to what degree GIS contributed to anthropocentric climate change? and more importantly, what should GIS professionals do?

I’ll say from the start that the reason it concerns me is that I don’t have easy answers to these questions, especially not to the second one.  While I personally would like to live in a society that moves very rapidly to renewable energy resources, I also take flights, drive to the supermarket and benefit from the use of fossil fuels – so I’m in the Hypocrites in The Air position, as Kevin Anderson defined it. At the same time, I feel that I do have responsibility as someone who teaches future generations of GIS professionals how they should use the tools and methods of GIScience responsibly. The easy way would be to tell myself that since, for the past 20 years, I’ve been working on ‘environmental applications’ of GIS, I’m on the ‘good’ side as far as sustainability is concerned. After all, the origins of the biggest player in our industry are environmental (environmental systems research, even!), we talk regularly about ‘Design With Nature’ as a core text that led to the overlays concept in GIS, and we praise the foresight of the designers of the UNEP Global Resource Information Database in the early 1980s. Even better, Google Earth brings Climate Change information and education to anyone who want to downloaded the information from the Met Office.

But technologies are not value-free, and do encapsulate certain values in them. That’s what critical cartography and critical GIS has highlighted since the late 1990s. Nadine Schuurman’s review is still a great starting point to this literature, but most of it analysed the link of the history of cartography and GIS to military applications, or, in the case of the volume ‘Ground Truth’, the use of GIS in marketing and classification of people. To the best of my knowledge, Critical GIScience has not focused its sight on oil exploration and extraction. Of course, issues such as pollution, environmental justice or environmental impacts of oil pipes are explored, but do we need to take a closer look at the way that GIS technology was shaped by the needs of the oil industry? For example, we use, without a second thought, the EPSG (European Petroleum Survey Group) definitions of co-ordinates reference systems in many tools. There are histories of products that are used widely, such as Oracle Spatial, where some features were developed specifically for the oil & gas industry.  There are secretive and proprietary projections and datums, and GIS products that are unique to this industry. One of the most common spatial analysis methods, Kriging, was developed for the extractive industry. I’m sure that there is much more to explore.

So, what is the problem with that, you would say?

Well Architect

Fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas – are at the centre of the process that lead to climate change. Another important thing about them is that once they’ve been extracted, they are likely to be used. That’s why there are calls to leave them in the groundWhen you look at the way explorations and production work, such as the image here from ‘Well Architect‘, you realise that geographical technologies are critical to the abilities to find and extract oil and gas. They must have played a role in the abilities of the industry to identify, drill and extract in places that were not feasible few decades ago. I remember my own amazement at the first time that I saw the complexity of the information that is being used and the routes that wells take underground, such as what is shown in the image (I’ll add that this was during an MSc project sponsored by Shell). In another project (sponsored by BP), it was just as fascinating to see how paleogeography is used for oil exploration. Therefore, within the complex process of finding and extracting fossil fuels, which involves many engineering aspects, geographical technologies do have an important role, but how important? Should Critical GIScientists or the emerging Critical Physical Geographers explore it?

This brings about the more thorny issue of the role of GIS professionals today and more so with people who are entering the field, such as the students who are studying for an MSc in GIS, and similar programmes. If we accept that most of the fossil fuels should stay underground and not be extracted, than what should we say to students? If the person that involved in working to help increasing oil production does not accept the science of climate change, or doesn’t accept that there is an imperative to leave fossil fuels in the ground, I may accept and respect their personal view. After all, as Mike Hulme noted, the political discussion is more important now than the science and we can disagree about it. On the other hand, we can take the point of view that we should deal with climate change urgently and go on the path towards reducing extraction rapidly. In terms of action, we see students joining campaigns for fossil free universities, with which I do have sympathy. However, we’re hitting another difficult point. We need to consider the personal cost of higher education and the opportunity for well paid jobs, which include tackling interesting and challenging problems. With the closure of many other jobs in GIS, what is the right thing to do?

I don’t have an easy answer, nor can I say that categorically I will never work with the extractive sector. But when I was asked recently to provide a reference letter by a student in the oil and gas industry, I felt obliged to state that ‘I can completely understand why you have chosen this career, I just hope that you won’t regret it when you talk with your grandchildren one day in the future’

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Professor of GIScience, University College London

3 thoughts on “Critical GIScientists, we need to talk about GIS and the oil industry…”

  1. Could one thing you do be to emulate, or work with, the UCL planning department, who work closely with the Just Space Network? You have already done this with Mapping for Change, but it could be a more general principle that GIS students and academics are encouraged to work with and support networks of citizens, perhaps particularly those at the receiving end of the direct and indirect negative impacts of the fossil fuels industry? I’m sure there are lots of interesting geospatial questions that your department could help the Just Space Network explore.

    1. Good points, although we are offering such projects to students, who only occasionally and fairly rarely pick them. Indeed, it is worth putting it forward as a research project, as you’ve suggested (which is why I’ve posted the blog in the first place!)

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