Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
"The big oil companies told me we shouldn't delay action against manmade climate change."
Some readers of those words, which started Alex Cuclis’s April 28 op-ed column in the Houston Chronicle, may have done a double-take.
But Cuclis, a HARC research scientist, packed the column with quotations from corporate websites that documented his assertion that anyone thinking "there's still some overwhelming uncertainty regarding the science of manmade climate change... hold[s] a view that's counter to what the major oil companies say."
Citing statements from those websites, he argued that the lives of today's children, plus those of future generations, depend on reducing greenhouse gases.
Cuclis, who holds an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and master’s degrees in analytical chemistry and behavioral sciences, has worked at HARC since 2004. Previously, he worked at Shell's Deer Park Refinery and Chemical Plant and for the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
He answered these questions for @HARC Newsletter.
Why did you decide to write this op-ed column for the Chronicle?
I see a big disconnect when talking about climate change with Houston-area engineers who work for petrochemical companies in this area and what the companies they work for say publicly and place on their websites. That disconnect also shows up in state and national politics.
When did you first start paying attention to oil companies' corporate pronouncements on climate change in a comprehensive way?
I was working on my master’s thesis [PDF file] in the late 1990's while working for Shell as a refinery engineer. Shell's website indicated substantial concern about climate change back then, and my thought was, "If Shell is advocating things like the Kyoto protocol, which were clearly not in their financial interest, then there must be something to this."
As a HARC research scientist, what kinds of work have you done?
My main interest has been measuring organic pollutants in the air. Numerous studies have indicated that reported emissions, using techniques approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, from petrochemical plants are frequently underestimated by a factor of 10 or more for a variety of reasons.
Do you think it would be a good idea to measure, not just estimate, industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from major sources such as refineries and power plants?
Yes. I suspect the estimations for carbon dioxide are reasonable, because estimates are mostly based on carbon burning with oxygen. However I suspect that estimates for methane emissions, which often come from leaks in both upstream and downstream facilities, will have the same errors that we have seen estimating traditional organic air
Could the same types of measuring equipment be used for greenhouse gases that are used for conventional pollutants?
One type of equipment well suited for measuring both methane and carbon dioxide is Differential Absorption LIDAR (DIAL). I have not been personally involved in a DIAL study. It is expensive, and we don't currently have a suitable system in the U.S. Also, you need to perform double-blind testing to demonstrate the true capabilities. If we don't measure emissions, we can't verify the volumes of greenhouse gases that are being emitted and what reductions have actually taken place. The EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have both used DIAL and say they cannot get the kind of results DIAL provides by any other means.