Imagine walking away from a promising and well-paying career as a geoscientist in the fossil fuel industry to join the fight against climate change.
That’s what Dimitri Lafleur did.
He started working for Shell in his home country of the Netherlands before he ended up in Australia in 2008 to help the company search for gas on the North West Shelf.
“My job was to map out the structure of the gas fields and work out how to get the most gas out of them,” says Dimitri.
But soon after he arrived in Perth, Dimitri found himself at a briefing on climate change science, and things would never be the same.
Looking at graphs of increasing carbon dioxide levels, he could not see how climate change could be solved with continued use of fossil fuels.
“That was the real trigger for me to think this was not the way to continue,” says Dimitri
He became acutely aware of the need for humans to take action.
Dimitri started agitating for the company to shift more of its core business towards renewables. But change wasn’t going to happen fast enough for him.
“You start to wonder, ‘What am I doing here?'”
So, after years of geophysics and geology study, including a master’s degree in earth sciences, and 11 years in the oil and gas industry, Dimitri took the plunge and resigned.
Using your skills to a different end
Dimitri soon enrolled in a PhD at the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College, which cultivates interdisciplinary work by experts in energy and climate to find solutions to climate change.
He started off with the idea of studying renewable energy but then the thought of giving up years of scientific expertise in geoscience stuck in his craw.
“I wasn’t prepared to let go all this knowledge I had,” he says. “I just couldn’t do it.”
So that’s when he decided to study the environmental impacts of “unconventional gas”.
This includes shale gas, although Dimitri’s main focus has been on coal seam gas (CSG).
While natural gas emits less CO2 than coal for the same amount of energy obtained, there is a question over whether this advantage could be affected by stray methane emissions leaking into the atmosphere during the CSG extraction process.
Dimitri wanted to investigate — and soon found himself a player in an ongoing controversy.
Natural versus man-made methane leaks
In recent years, for example, arguments have flared over a methane gas leak in Queensland’s Condamine River, in the Surat Basin, which is one of Australia’s largest coal seam gas regions.
In 2016, the Greens released a dramatic YouTube video, in which they set methane bubbling into the river on fire, blaming CSG mining for the build up of gas.
Others, including the CSIRO, have argued the methane bubbles are likely due to a natural “seep”.
Dimitri argues, however, that there is a lack of data and CSG mining could have a bigger contribution to methane emissions than many think.
Only by measuring emissions before, during and after CSG wells are sunk will it be possible to work out whether its extraction is increasing methane emissions by making natural methane leaks worse, or creating new leaks, he says.
But Dimitri’s PhD research found that published scientific measurements of these stray methane emissions was relatively scarce — given the extent of CSG development in Australia.
These findings were published online in two reports prepared by the Melbourne Energy Institute.
At a conference in Sydney earlier this year, Dimitri reported some preliminary experimental findings from his PhD study of methane emissions in another area of the CSG fields near Condamine.
In this work, he combined his previous experience as a geoscientist with knowledge from the fields of atmospheric and soil science to demonstrate a method of studying methane leaks from the ground.
Looking to the future
Dimitri says he’d like to follow up, over time, to see if there is any change in emissions as CSG operations continue.
He argues that any research project like this will need good access to industry geological data, have a broad enough scope to answer the question at hand, and to be done in a way that engenders public trust.
“It’s important that it is transparent and done in an independently verifiable way.”
CSIRO currently has a project with industry that, among other things, is measuring methane seepage in the Surat Basin.
“This is critical as the information can then be used to compare against future methane emissions as CSG production in the Surat Basin increases, providing a guide as to what portion of methane belongs to the CSG industry,” states a fact sheet on the project website.
Dimitri is watching the research with interest.
… and looking back
As Dimitri prepares to submit his PhD, he looks back on the six years since he made the tough decision to leave his job with Shell.
Dimitri says Shell was otherwise a very good company in terms of job satisfaction and opportunities. Among other things, it was hard to leave behind the financial security.
“You get a nice salary, there’s no denying that,” he says.
“It made me very aware of how difficult it would be for people to quit who had big mortgages or had become accustomed to the quality of life.
“There were plenty of times I wondered if this was the right decision.
“But in the end, the idea that I have a more an active role in contributing to solutions for climate change makes me a much happier person … I feel really good.”
Dimitri is also passionate about the “moral responsibility” of fossil fuel producers to help pay for climate change mitigation and adaptation, even if it is not in their backyard.
“There is a lot of wealth creation with these fossil fuels,” he says.
“It can help pay for mitigation and adaptation in countries that don’t have those funds available.”
Source:: ABC News Australia