Robert Rapier

If you pay any attention to mainstream news outlets' reporting on the climate change forefront, there's a good chance you've read some of Robert Rapier's work. A chemical engineer by training, Mr. Rapier has spent the last two decades working in the oil and gas, chemical, and renewable energy industries, cultivating a "hands-on" understanding of energy and how we use it that some of his peers with only an academic grasp of the field lack. As such, his mission is to foster "civil, objective discussions on energy and environmental issues" - an objectively difficult task for a topic that elicits polarizing opinions. 

  

I recently caught up with Robert (pictured above next to the cover of his book, Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil)​ to ask him about who he reads, how the different players in the energy industry will continue to shuffle, and how rationality can be a problem in the climate change debate.

The following interview took place on November 7 and November 17, 2017.

 

INTERVIEWER

​Where did you grow up?

RAPIER

On a ranch outside of Hugo, Oklahoma – a few miles from the Oklahoma/Texas border. One of the most conservative parts of the country. But as an adult, I have lived in lots of places on the other side of the political spectrum; Europe on three occasions, and Hawaii (which is probably more liberal than even California).

 

INTERVIEWER

Were you a writer or scientist first? What led you to choose chemical engineering?

RAPIER

I never liked writing much in high school or college. I always liked messing around with chemicals when I was growing up. I accidentally released chlorine gas in our house once and we all had to go outside until it cleared up. I never took chemistry until college, but then I loved it. I hadn’t really settled on a major yet, but I decided to double-major in chemistry and math. It wasn’t until graduate school that I made the switch to chemical engineering.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can you briefly describe your graduate school work? Did you ever consider the PhD/academia path? 

 

RAPIER

I went to Texas A&M University to get a PhD in analytical chemistry. Two years into that program, I had passed all my coursework and preliminary exams. But the job market wasn’t looking that promising for PhD chemists, so I started thinking about chemical engineering. My background in math made the transition a lot easier, so two years after switching majors I graduated with a Master’s Degree in chemical engineering.

 

INTERVIEWER

Who or what were your inspirations growing up?

 

RAPIER

I wasn’t much of an academic when I was growing up, so my inspirations came from other fields. I really liked and admired people who could make tough decisions under pressure, and who led by example. I always loved the Dallas Cowboys, and their quarterback Roger Staubach, was an exemplary model of leadership and morality for me. As I got a bit older, I enjoyed reading biographies of those who had risen from obscurity to greatness. Not only great scientists like Newton and Einstein, but even political leaders and entertainers – anyone who had risen from humble beginnings to become widely recognized in a field.  

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your favorite books? Favorite books on science or favorite science writers? They certainly don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I guess I’m trying to tease out fiction versus books on science, which are generally more historical non-fiction. 

 

RAPIER

My favorite books have been those that impacted the way I think. Books that make me see things in a different light have been extremely influential for me. Some examples would be On the Origins of Species and many of its derivatives, as it provided mind-blowing ideas about who we are as a species. One that really shifted my thinking on low probability, high impact events was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. Some of Ray Kurzweil’s books provoke deep thinking as well, even though I often find myself disagreeing with what he writes.

Some of my favorite science writers are Brian Greene, Ramez Naam, Michio Kaku,

and Jared Diamond. A few of my favorite science fiction writers are Vernor Vinge, Robert Charles Wilson, Dan Simmons, Greg Bear, and Kim Stanley Robinson.

INTERVIEWER

What’s more fun for you: engineering, writing, or consulting? You wear quite a few hats…

 

RAPIER

Each has fun elements, but also tedious elements. Writing about something I am passionate about is fun and I can knock out 5,000 words at a single sitting. But writing 500 words about an assignment I was given can be extremely tedious. Designing a new process can be a lot of fun, but sizing valves and pipes is tedious. I really like to experiment and discover.   

INTERVIEWER

The price of oil is notoriously difficult to predict. What other patterns of the energy industry are difficult to foresee, but receive far less attention?

RAPIER

I will answer a slightly different question. What do we know to be true, but isn’t, about the energy industry? There’s lots of fertile ground there. We “know” that oil demand is weakening. I read about it on a daily basis. Yet, it’s growing at the strongest rate in years. Thus far, electric vehicles are making no dent in our oil consumption, even in countries and states where they are experiencing astronomical growth rates. The problem is that the media seems to get behind a narrative and push it, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s going to take much longer for this kind of transition to take place than many have been led to believe.

INTERVIEWER

You have over 20 years of experience in the chemical, oil and gas, and renewable energy industries, both in the international and domestic markets. With what you know, what significant shifts in the global energy market do you see playing out in the next 20 years?

RAPIER

The coal industry will continue to die as renewables continue to grow exponentially and natural gas continues to make inroads in the power sector. Nuclear power, which once had a seemingly bright future, will continue to struggle to grow globally as fear of one of those low probability, but high impact events trumps the benefits of nuclear power. I believe global oil production will peak during that time frame, but I also thought we were on the cusp of that a decade ago.

INTERVIEWER

You published your book, Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil, in 2012. Five years later, of the bigger themes in the book, what predictions did you leave out that you wish you would’ve mentioned? Or, alternatively, ones you made that you wish you hadn’t?

RAPIER

There was a bit of a controversy over the title of the book, because I didn’t want it to mention “peak oil.” The whole idea was starting to become associated with the more extreme believers in the idea (e.g., doomsday preppers). I wanted it to be more focused on just energy, and not get stereotyped as another “peak oil” book (which it isn’t).

The biggest theme that I really missed in the book was the whole shale oil and gas

revolution. I only had data through 2010 as I was writing the book, and I didn’t recognize that U.S. oil production was on the cusp of growing at the fastest rate in U.S. history. I failed to appreciate the huge surge in oil and gas production that was about to unfold.

INTERVIEWER

From an energy policy perspective, what major accomplishments was President Obama able to achieve? Where do you think he could've done more?

RAPIER

I have noted before the irony that George Bush, an "oil" guy, oversaw eight straight years of oil production declines in the U.S. Obama, on the other hand, saw U.S. oil production increase for seven of his first eight years in office, and rise at the fastest rate in U.S. history. But this wasn't because of their policies. Obama was lucky enough to be in office when the shale boom happened. He took credit on several occasions for booming U.S. oil and gas production, but he had nothing to do with it. 

Obama can be credited for policies that shifted energy in the direction of

renewables, while at the same time attempting to slow fossil fuels. Examples of the latter include policies designed to curb carbon dioxide emissions (like the Clean Power Plan, which apparently won't survive), foot-dragging on approving pipeline projects, and bans on offshore drilling. He also invested billions in energy efficiency and renewables, and got higher fuel economy standards enacted. But it seems Trump is determined to undo as much of Obama's agenda as he can.

INTERVIEWER

Your mission, as stated on your website, R-Squared Energy, is to “foster civil, objective discussions on energy and environmental issues,” which is a noble mission, no matter the subject. It's almost mandatory to choose a side at this point. For a subject like climate change, that kind of makes you a gatekeeper and/or bullshit detector. As a writer, has objectivity always been your plan, or has politics affected who you’re writing to/for? How do you balance ideology and realism?

RAPIER

I try not to let politics influence my writing at all, and that sometimes leads to a lot of blowback. If I am talking about climate change on a right-leaning site, or oil production on a left-leaning site, I frequently have to deal with a lot of unproductive feedback. My mission is to be utterly objective at all times, but there are always people who are not equipped to cope with that on certain topics.

I have engaged in thought experiments before that just short-circuited some

reader’s brains and caused them to lash out. It could be “Let’s assume for a second that carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow” – and that could immediately turn into negative feedback about how I have bought into a climate change myth, or getting chastised for not using the opportunity to advocate stronger action to combat climate change. My wife has said that my biggest weakness is that I try to be rational all the time, and therefore have trouble reaching people acting irrationally or emotionally. I keep trying to hit them with reason, and sometimes it just doesn’t work.

INTERVIEWER

As the environmental movement continues to grow, what are some of the ways it’s more financially motivated than it would have us believe?

 

RAPIER

There’s a lot of money on the fossil fuel side of the equation, but make no mistake - a lot of environmental organizations are pulling in lots of dollars. Sometimes they try to create a tempest in a teapot for fundraising purposes. Money slants their objectivity. I once wrote an article on the topic ("Environmentalism is a Profitable Business"). I don’t mean to imply that they are all in it for the money, but it would be hard to deny given some of the fund-raising emails I get that money doesn’t influence their message.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tucker Carlson of Fox News recently invited Bill Nye onto his show to debate climate change, and unsurprisingly, it was unproductive. Nye undoubtedly had the more difficult job, but he was quickly sidetracked by Carlson’s line of questioning and failed to deliver a strong argument. One school of thought is that Nye shouldn’t have been there in the first place because he’s not, by title, a climate scientist. Yet, for topics like climate change and GMOs where the public tends to favor and align with political and religious identities instead of the scientific consensus, one could posit scientists need to intervene in public debates. What is the scientist’s responsibility to the public?

RAPIER

I think it is so important to understand why someone believes the things they do. Then sometimes you can address that. However, if they get their news from conspiracy websites, it’s probably a lost cause because everything you try to spell out becomes part of the conspiracy. But let’s say the topic is climate change. I try to establish common ground. Do you understand the greenhouse effect? If not, here’s how it works. I will explain that the greenhouse effect is actually the reason the world’s oceans aren’t frozen solid, so it’s not all bad. But then I will explain the role of CO2 and how we have a mechanism for why that should impact global temperatures. At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge that some of the modeling did predict higher temperatures than we have seen. It’s a predictive model that may veer from reality, but that doesn’t invalidate the underlying science. It’s important to highlight that. My approach is to educate, but also to listen to and understand objections.

 

INTERVIWER

How does the repeal of the ban on oil exports change America’s energy outlook? Does it bring us any closer to energy independence?

 

RAPIER

It really doesn’t change a lot, except it shifts profits from the refiners – who were buying cheap oil and exporting finished products – to the oil producers, who can now enjoy some of those margins themselves. As far as energy independence for the U.S.; a decade ago I would have argued that this wasn’t possible. I have learned not to say the word “impossible” when talking about the capabilities of U.S. oil production. It is far more a function of the price of oil than people had appreciated. By that, I mean that there is a lot of oil that will become more economical to produce if the price of oil rises. So I explain to people that peak oil, for instance, is a function of price. We have passed $20 per barrel peak oil. I do not believe we have passed $100 per barrel peak oil.

 

INTERVEWER

What is, or will be, the greatest breakthrough discovery in chemical engineering in our lifetime? What about in energy as related to global use?

RAPIER

If we can master economic artificial photosynthesis, it will be a game-changer. For example, if we can mimic a leaf and economically convert solar energy into a storable energy source (like hydrogen, for instance), it will be a huge deal. There are also lots of opportunities in energy storage that would have enormous ramifications. But the greatest breakthrough in the past 30 years has probably been one that people wouldn’t think of, and that’s the marriage of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling. That opened up huge new supplies of oil and gas, and postponed peak oil.

 

INTERVIEWER

You write for Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, but also call out writers from these institutions when you find evidence that contradicts their statements, e.g. “Yes, The U.S. Leads All Countries In Reducing Carbon Emissions”. How does this affect your working relationships with fellow writers?

 

RAPIER

I have gotten irritable emails from some before, pleading their case. A few times it has gotten nasty.

Speaking of other writers, you really have to be aware of what they are writing.

More than once, I have written an article only to notice that someone else had recently written a similar article. Sometimes you have to deal with other writers lifting your material without attribution. That doesn’t happen at the outlets you mentioned, but sometimes I will find an article of mine on the Internet that has totally been lifted, and in extreme cases has another writer’s name on it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever find yourself bring driven to write as a counterbalance to the anti-Trump rhetoric with regard to energy policy or climate change denial? As much as this administration deserves the scrutiny it's receiving, the left has also been guilty of publishing misleading headlines and claims about things Trump has achieved vs. things Trump has said.

RAPIER

I think Trump is an overreaction to the position we found ourselves in at the end of the Obama administration. I think Obama swung things a little too hard to the left, especially on a lot of energy policy stuff. So we swung hard one way and now we're swinging back, which is funny because Bernie Sanders was right there in contention and we could've swung even harder back to the left.

But no, to answer the question, I don't spend much time defending Trump. I think

he's an absolute train wreck in the White House. At the same time, I won't touch that in my writing. 

I have approached articles saying, here is where I think Trump will do some

positive things. In regards to the article you mentioned above ("Yes, the U.S. Leads All Countries in Reducing Carbon Emissions"), when a colleague says, this guy's a big liar and it's something that's actually true, then yes, there's an obligation to say something.

INTERVIEWER

Who are some journalists writing about energy that you do admire?

 

RAPIER

Robert Bryce is a good friend of mine and a provocative writer - he leans pretty far to the right. He likes to wear the black hat. David Roberts, who's a deep thinker with very well thought-out arguments. In no particular order: Lisa Margonelli, Peter Tertzakian, Robert Zubrin, Katie Fehrenbacher, Dana Hull. Daniel Yergin, also - I really enjoy his stuff. Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone, although he's pretty liberal. Steve Mufson and Chris Mooney at the Washington Post. David Biello, who is now the science curator for TED conferences.

INTERVIEWER

Some top officials in the Trump administration have mentioned solar geoengineering as a climate change measure worth pursuing. Do you think it's viable?

 

RAPIER

I know a lot of people will freak out about geoengineering, but if you look at the problem, there's really not much we're going to be able to do policy-wise to rein in carbon dioxide emissions. If you do the math on it, it's pretty depressing. So we do need a solution where we're either sucking carbon dioxide out of the air or blocking the sun or some combination of the two. I think it's a knee-jerk reaction to say, you can't tamper with the climate because it could be disastrous. Well, we may be heading for disaster and that may be the only option we have.

 

INTERVIEWER

After the 2016 election, there was a lot of talk in the media about scientists coming forward to run for office. If you had to nominate one scientist to run for President, who would it be and why?

RAPIER

It would have to be someone who is an effective communicator. I don’t think Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson are necessarily great scientists, but they are great communicators and that is so important. The biggest rock star scientist in the world is Stephen Hawking, but he is of course British and couldn’t run for President.

Scientists are often guilty of speaking over people’s heads. You have to be able to

speak to people in language they understand. I just don’t think most scientists are wired for politics. Science is about data, and politics is about feelings. A scientist would try to manage according to data, angering just about every constituency in the process.

 

INTERVIEWER

Last, but not least: Stones, Beatles, Floyd or Zeppelin? (Or, judging by your email, Tenacious D?)

RAPIER

Metallica, since before they were a household name. Although if you restrict to that list, it would be the Stones. I have at least four of their songs on my playlist. (For the record, those songs are: Jumping Jack Flash, Paint it Black, Satisfaction, and...Gimme Shelter.)  

Visit Robert's site, R-Squared Energy, to read his latest articles on all things energy. 

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

©2019 by EG Lund.