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Q&A with Bruce Levell

The New Statesman talks to the chief scientist (geology) at Royal Dutch Shell.

What is the greatest technological advance of the past 25 years?
In my own industry, the ability to extract oil and gas from very deep water. Outside my industry, I’m impressed with the developments taking place in the solar industry.

How will the fossil-fuel industry adapt to the changes in energy systems?
Renewable energy sources on their own are not going to satisfy world energy demand for some time. A balance between accepting the intermittent supply of renewables and the more constant supply of fossil fuels is probably going to be the way it happens.

Which technologies do you have the highest hopes for?
In oil and gas, I see drilling technologies as being the major area of hope for the future. We’re seeing at the moment a large number of wells being drilled to get access to more difficult resources, and that is bringing the cost of drilling down. It also means that the footprint of the drilling operation is being substantially reduced.

How do you work with academic institutions to bring innovation to practice?
We sponsor research for particular areas through PhDs, post-doctoral research and sponsoring academic faculty. But there is a lot more innovation happening outside Shell, or any oil and gas company, and tapping into that is what we need to do. That’s very much a work in progress – people are struggling with how we move to a more open model of innovation.

What about innovators outside corporate or academic environments?
Our desire is to access a wide range of innovation channels, including small to medium-sized enterprises and venture capital companies. We need to find a way of interfacing with smaller companies whereby our presence is not overbearing and is beneficial for both parties – we get the virtue of their accelerated development and innovation, and they get the virtue of our engineering expertise and ability to understand the application.

Do you have any favourite innovators?
To be honest, I don’t. In my experience, innovation happens in teams.

What motivated you to become a geologist?
I decided when I was about 14 I wanted to spend life outdoors. I was intrigued by landscapes and how they were formed, and I wanted to understand the way the earth worked.

What areas outside geology most have an impact on your ability to innovate?
Fundamentally, geologists can only work if they can get information from inside the earth. Geological innovation is critically dependent on geophysical innovation and they have always gone very closely hand in hand. The imaging revolution in geophysics, which has largely been a mathematical computational one, has enabled geology.

Is innovation a purely technological matter for you?
No. It is very much a social activity. With the drive to deliver a technology to the field, you need to work hard to make sure sufficient space is allowed for creative spirits to actually interact with each other.

Are you confident that our education systems, nationally and worldwide, are up to the task of providing the next generation of innovators?
I am impressed by the quality and enthusiasm of the new graduates who are joining Shell. The new kids are frighteningly intelligent and highly motivated. The numbers are potentially an issue, as the projects are getting increasingly complex and require additional resources. But there is plenty of talent out there; you just have to go and look in different places.

The cost of innovation is huge. Is it only a priority in boom times?
Not with us. What you see is that the type of activity does vary: in boom times, the research agenda is pulled towards deployment and tackling problems that the projects have, and in times of bust it goes back to the more fundamental research.

Which should we be more worried about – not having enough, or not having the right kind of energy in years to come?
You need to be worried about both. If you don’t have enough energy, that’s going to create social tensions between the people who do and the people who don’t. The right kind is obviously important with respect to mitigating the impact of the use of energy on our planet.

Where does the main responsibility for cutting carbon lie – with governments, with business, or with the consumer?
It has to be all of the above. Governments have to state honestly that if people want an improved energy system combined with environmental responsibility, it’s going to cost more than it currently does. The industry needs signals to be able to make the substantial investments required to move the system. Consumers have a responsibility to choose products that nudge industry in the right direction.

During your career, have your assumptions been proved wrong or have you had to revise your opinion?
I’ve been 34 years at Shell, and 30 years of that were in exploration. In exploration, you’re delighted if you’re ever right! It’s about constantly revising your opinion and constantly learning from your mistakes.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely not. Over the past hundred years, we built this system that has given many people cheap energy and a fantastic lifestyle, and that’s happened more or less on its own. The energy is there, from the earth’s resources and from the sun. The potential is there in terms of people’s ability to harness the technology to the purpose. It’s a question of getting on with it.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.