Geologists in “acquaintances who drink beer” shocker!

The Independent on Tuesday of this week published an article by Chris Green reporting on the contents of emails between two unnamed individuals working for Cuadrilla and the British Geological Survey (BGS) which were obtained by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The quotes selected from the cache of e-mails reveal (in dramatic fashion) the revelation that the two individuals in question appear to know each other casually – catching up over a beer and potentially going to a Leonard Cohen concert together. Damning stuff. The article is padded out further with some quotations from an attempt to organise an event (which didn’t actually happen) where the BGS and Durham University were contemplating organising an event to educate journalists about fracking.

Academic institutions are no strangers to this style of reporting, where troves of emails obtained either through FOIA requests or other means are pored over to attempt to cherry pick hints of impropriety. Climate researchers in particular are practically used to it. The “Climategate scandal” was founded on this very issue, where selective quoting and mischaracterisation of what those quotes meant was used to manufacture doubt into the scientific research being undertaken at the University of East Anglia. Subsequent investigations have vindicated the researchers completely. Other climate researchers such as Michael Mann have been hounded with FOIA requests by denier groups in an attempt to seek out more controversial nuggets of text. It’s a surprise then to see these very same tactics being used by an environmentalist group such as Greenpeace.

The case for impropriety here is extremely thin, so much so that I’m actually surprised that Greenpeace weren’t able to dig up anything which looked more damning. Who amongst us thinks that carefully about what we type? Can we really be sure that our own e-mails are any better? I’m sure if you look in the inbox of any habitual email user you can eventually find something which looks damning enough when taken out of context. How many of us have sent emails to old friends or colleagues arranging to have a catch up pint some time?

Not too long ago I received an email from a colleague with an attached Creation “Science” document. The e-mail read: “I guess we had it all wrong”. How does that look out of context? I know that my colleague had their tongue planted firmly in cheek, but is that how it would be reported? Similarly, when I won a BP sponsored presentation prize I proudly joked to my collaborators – “I guess I don’t believe in climate change now!”. Individuals seeking to imply relationships between myself, petroleum researchers and employees of the British Antarctic survey would need to look no further than a series of regular e-mails with the subject “Total Choon!” linking to various music videos.

We all have ill-advised statements sitting in our outboxes, whether they’re jokes or poor word choices. This latest “scandal” isn’t even that, it’s an attempt to cast aspersions on a pair of individuals based solely on their social associations.

Geologists are a sociable bunch, we have a well-known love of beer, and we tend to know our fellow graduates well. Three or more years of shared field trips in cramped, remote hostels with terrible weather tend to form lasting bonds. Friends from my undergraduate degree work across the world, some in academia, many of them in industry. A geologist in the BGS and a geologist in Cuadrilla knowing each other and potentially being friends should hardly be a surprise in this context. The association between the two does not imply any form of impropriety or shady goings on. Indeed many of us maintain friendships with colleagues working in other fields for the purpose of potential future collaborations as well as social engagements. I am working on a PhD in climate research, the fact that a few weeks ago a friend who works for a large multinational oil company slept on my couch doesn’t influence either of our work/research. That said, he did e-mail me this today:

“Hi Bob, how are things

Fancy catching up over a beer sometime – would be interested to hear more on your research into climate. You’ve got a wonderful field location, would be great to find oil out there.

p.s. hope Greenpeace doesn’t read this!

[Anonymised oily friend]

#sarcastic email”


Disclosure: I work as a PhD Researcher at Durham University. However I am not associated with any petroleum or fracking researchers (except for Friday evening beers!). I do enjoy some classic Leonard Cohen tunes.