Vassar Today


By Edited by Corinne Militello '98

Course: “Oil” Geology 345a and Environmental Studies 345a


Brian McAdoo, assistant professor of geology. After completing undergraduate studies at Duke University, McAdoo did graduate work in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying the Alpine fault — the plate boundary fault between the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates. In 1994 he started his Ph.D. research at the University of California, Santa Cruz by going on a research cruise to the Cascadia accretionary prism, where he went to the bottom of the ocean in the research submarine Alvin. His current research involves studying how submarine landscapes evolve. McAdoo came to Vassar in 1998 as the Minority Scholar-in-Residence, following his position at Amoco Nigeria (now BP) as an exploration geologist. He teaches “Oil,” “Oceanography, Global Geophysics and Tectonics,” “Field Ecology and Geology of the Bahamas,” and “Digital Underground,”in which the class investigates the African-American history of the Mid-Hudson Valley through geophysical explorations of its graveyards.

“One of the reasons I really love it here is that Vassar gives you a lot of leeway in what you teach,” said McAdoo. He proposed this course and first taught it two years ago, shortly after the Bush administration announced plans to explore for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Course Description

“We start with an historical perspective to show how pervasive oil is in our society, and how it governed the course of 20th-century history,” McAdoo said. “It’s necessary for absolutely everything in our society, and so we need to understand it really well.” But this course is not about the evils of the oil industry. “Oil is really a good thing, and in my opinion, things are really a lot better because of oil,” McAdoo said, citing medical and technological innovations. But, he added, the course considers both “the benefits that oil has brought our society and how we are going to continue those benefits when we run out of this limited resource.

“As we enter the 21st century, our society is firmly rooted — both culturally and economically — in oil. For the hydraulic civilizations of Mesopotamia, it was water. For the Native Americans of the Great Plains, it was buffalo. This class looks into almost every aspect of oil. Starting at the source, with kerogen generation, we follow the hydrocarbons along migration pathways to a reservoir with a suitable trap. We look at the techniques geologists and geophysicists use to find an oil field, and how engineers and economists get the product from the field to refineries, paying particular attention to environmental concerns. What is involved in the negotiations between multinational corporations and developing countries over production issues? What are the stages in refining oil from the crude that comes from the ground to the myriad of uses it sees today, including plastics, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers, not to mention gasoline? We also discuss the future of this rapidly dwindling, nonrenewable resource, and options for an oil-less future.”

Reading List

  • The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, by Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster, 1991), winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction
  • Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, by Kenneth S. Deffeyes (Princeton University Press, 2001)
  • The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World-Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth, by Jeremy Rifkin (J.P. Tarcher, 2002)
  • From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel, by Joshua Tickell (Greenteach, 2000)
  • Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000)
  • The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, by Bjorn Lomborg (Cambridge University Press, 2001)