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Harnessing Dr. Scott Tinker’s enthusiasm and boundless vivacity may not instantly solve the global energy equation; however he is delivering a clear directive on energy that we all can embrace.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 4 - 2011


Dr. Scott W. Tinker became Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2000 and is also State Geologist of Texas and a Professor, holding the Allday Endowed Chair. Before becoming Director, Scott had 17 years of geologic experience with the oil industry. He is Past President of both the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (2008-2009) and the Association of American State Geologists (2006-2007). Photo: Thomas Smith  
Energy, Environment, and the Economy are important topics to Dr. Scott Tinker. Through nearly nonstop travels and lectures, he is working to educate us all about our use of energy and where it will come from in the near future.  

“My family put in efficient lights and appliances, we drive an electric golf cart, and save some energy,” says Dr. Tinker. “And although sometimes it feels like my small contribution makes little difference in our overall energy usage, if we all begin to use energy more wisely, huge savings will be realized.”   

“We all have passions. Mine is to educate the public on energy issues and to help bring academia, government, and industry together in a balanced approach to energy generation and use.”   

Scott also has a passion for the science of geology. “Geology is at the heart of all sciences! It is such a creative science with far-reaching impact.” he says with a smile.  

The Film

The cornerstone of Dr. Tinker’s education program will be a documentary film on energy, the working title of which is “The Bridge”. (see GEO ExPro Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2. Scott did not reveal the final title of the documentary, which is very near completion and currently being marketed to major networks such as HBO.) The film will have a complementary web site that will contain much more detailed information than the film and additional links addressing energy issues.   

“One of the greatest issues facing society today with energy is our lack of understanding of the subject,” says Scott. “There are many misperceptions on energy out there. We educate ourselves on health, drugs, crime, and so on. Because energy is critical to all the other systems we have in the world, an understanding of energy is a must. This is why I have been working and speaking on energy issues for many years and the film is an outgrowth of my desire to educate people on energy issues.”  

In order to appeal to a broad audience and establish an understanding of the concepts presented in the film, they are introducing a unique energy unit. As he explains, “When people hear about world energy consumption quantified in quadrillion BTUs, billion barrels of oil (we consume one large tanker filled with oil every 13 minutes) or generation of electricity in Gigawatt hours; well, we really cannot relate to numbers so large. To help put this into perspective, we have created a new energy unit. We consider the average amount of energy one person in the world uses in one year – about 20 million watt hours ¬– and call it 1 Energy Life. Everything we look at is examined in terms of “energy lives.”   

“This new energy unit is an attempt to create an energy conversation,” says Scott. “It will allow a person to compare scales of energy generation and consumption and how each person’s use of energy does really make a difference."  

"At the end of the day, it is about each of our individual behaviors; each energy footprint matters.”

Our Energy Future

“The most common end use energy is electricity, which we think of as clean,” says Scott. “However, electricity means plugging into coal, our largest fuel source, to boil water, make steam, turn a turbine and create electricity. Natural gas is the next largest source followed by nuclear. This mix is going to be slow to change, but change it must to meet the world’s future energy demands.”  

World energy demand is increasing at an average 1.25% annual rate and growing economies in China and India will likely accelerate global demand. Currently, about 85% of this energy comes from fossil fuels. Petroleum supplies the largest amount followed by coal and natural gas, with smaller contributions from nuclear, hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind. Dr. Tinker projects fossil fuels will still make up 80% of our energy 20 years from now.   

“Energy usage is not something that lends itself to quick transitions. We need to be very patient with the pace of change in our future energy mix,” says Scott. “It will take probably half a century before combined coal and oil go below 50% in the energy mix. People need to understand that the renewable energy sources, although growing and valuable, currently make up a very small percentage of supply; it will require huge financial and land investments to make a big difference.”   

“In the meantime, we are moving towards cleaner sources of energy,” says Scott. “We are gradually transitioning away from oil and solid coal towards natural gas, which is globally abundant. We are now producing natural gas from coal and shale, rocks that have never produced in the past. These unconventional resources are vast and are found in many more places than conventional oil and gas, which helps with security of supply. Although expensive, coal gasification – burning the syngas rather than pulverizing and burning the coal – with sequestration is cleaner in terms of emissions and could help address some of the supply issues we face with oil and natural gas. We also have new technologies for tapping tar sands, heavy oils, and oil shales. And of course nuclear is a vital form of power generation, with essentially no carbon emissions. This all adds up to a more diverse, cleaner and reliable supply.”  


“I think two things could bring massive changes to the way we live and use energy,” says Scott. “One would be the way energy is stored. We are terrible at storing energy whether it is in a flashlight, cell phone or car battery - none last very long. Energy sources such as wind and solar are intermittent by nature. The real challenge is to develop a way to store the energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, to be used later when it is needed. This also provides a way to level out the huge demand peaks we see during a heat wave or a severe winter storm.”   

“The second breakthrough will come from the efficient use of energy,” Scott continues. “Our energy system is very inefficient in the way we transport it along wires or burn it to move cars, trucks and other vehicles.   
“Some very interesting research is starting to address these challenges,” says Scott. “We are developing smart energy grids and intelligent meters that will smooth out some of the energy peaks, and nanotechnology centers are looking at exciting new materials that could provide some answers for both efficient storage and transmission.”  

“While on this subject of efficiency, I have to talk about conservation,” Scott continues. “The more efficient we get with energy systems, the more total energy we consume. That is one reason we introduced the energy life unit in our film, so that people could see they can make a difference. Unfortunately, there is also the rebound effect. Cars have become more efficient but now we have two or three and drive more miles. We also have several computers per household, bigger refrigerators, all using more energy. Ultimately, economics will drive us to make different choices and transition to other energy sources. But many efficiency gains can be made now, without changing our way of life.”

Boundless Energy

Dr. Tinker (front right) and Harry Lynch, director of Scott’s documentary, are pictured in McKittrick Canyon (north-west Texas), one of the film’s many and varied locations from around the world. Photo: Wilson Waggoner  I asked Scott if he had a headline that would best describe him. He responded, “I would rather die living than live dying!” When asking about his exuberance and boundless energy, he responded with “My mother said that ‘I came down the chute a runnin’.” This sentiment is echoed by his coworkers and his busy schedule. Scott is traveling, in meetings, and working nearly non-stop week in and week out.  

Scott has had a deep history with geology and the energy business. His father was a long-time geologist with Shell. Yet when it was time for college, Scott entered Trinity, a liberal arts university in San Antonio, Texas with no plan to go into geology. It was Professor Ed Roy’s influence as educator and counselor at Trinity that got Scott excited about geology and he graduated magna cum laude, top of his class in both geology and business administration. Scott went on to get a M. S. in geology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where his advisor and mentor was the prominent carbonate researcher and professor James Lee Wilson. This set Scott up later for a Ph. D. from the University of Colorado in Boulder.   

Outside his work, Scott’s other passion lies with his wife of 28 years and their four offspring, ranging from 21 down to 10 years. “Our big thing for family time is to travel,” says Scott. “We will go on four to six week driving trips to different parts of the country, learning about the history, hiking, and enjoying what each area has to offer. We get books on tape to fit where we are going; we listened to Poe in the north-east and Killer Angels before visiting Gettysburg.”  

Scott on our future: “The big change happening globally is the flow of information. We cannot keep information from the young people of the world. Our job is to give kids the tools to bring change peacefully and with a global conscience. I am very optimistic about the future; we have the resources to do it and as I travel around I see young people with a sparkle in their eyes. Our kids will solve future energy problems and challenge us all to be better custodians of our planet.” 



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