All the Trucks in Texas on a One Way Road – Dave Goodrich’s Bike Ride Across the Permian Basin
Author, climate scientist, and CCAN board member Dave Goodrich is an avid cyclist. So much so, that he has embarked on a 700 miles journey across the Permian Basin. On his way he has been taking in the sites of the most active oil (and wind) producing areas in the country, and documenting what he sees along the way. We are so excited to be have been able to chat with him last week after finishing his perilous journey.
Read the full transcript below.
Charles Olsen 0:06
Hi, my name is Charlie Olsen and this is Upside Down the podcast from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. In this episode, CCAN executive director Mike Tidwell is joined by CCAN board member and acclaimed author of a voyage across an ancient ocean bicycle journey through the northern Dominion of oil. Dave Goodrich.
Mike Tidwell 0:42
Hi, I’m Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. And I’m really excited about our program today. As someone who spent the first half of my career in print journalism as a freelance writer and author, I’ve written a few books myself, it is really great to have another writer on our podcasts Upside Down. A fellow author who also happens to be a board member for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Dave Goodrich lives in Rockville, Maryland, and he enjoyed a distinguished career as a climate scientist, including serving as former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate observations and monitored monitoring program. That’s a full title if I ever heard one. Dave’s also a bicycle nut. And I first learned about him by reading a Washington Post article. I think it was probably about 10 years ago, about how he had retired from his government work, and rode a bicycle from Delaware, to the Pacific Ocean to draw attention to observable climate impacts on the ground from coast to coast. And that book turned into Dave, that trip turned into Dave’s first book published in 2017, called a Hole in the Wind, a climate scientist’s bicycle journey across the United States. And now we come to Dave’s second book, which is, which was just published by Pegasus, chronicling another bike ride, where Dave pedals 1100 miles from the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada, to the Bakken oil and fracking fields of North Dakota. That book is called a voyage across an ancient ocean, a bicycle journey through the northern dominion of oil. And Dave, welcome to Upside Down.
Dave Goodrich 2:33
It’s great to be here, Mike, and an honor.
Mike Tidwell 2:36
Well, we’re great that we’re glad to have you. And we’ve just launched this podcast in the last few months. And you’re the first author that we’ve interviewed on this program. So we’re glad to have you here, I mean, most retiree cyclists take more casual rides along the California coast or through the tulip fields of Holland. But you take what many of us would call a godforsaken trip through these tar sands in Canada and oil fields of North America. Quickly, why did you make this ride? And why’d you write the book?
Dave Goodrich 3:13
Well, I actually had a hard time recruiting friends to come along with me, because it was rough out there. But in the first book I thought I would kind of want to write across looking at climate change from the bicycle seat. And for this book, I thought, where could I go, where could I see climate change, where climate change comes from, where is the carbon where the oil is coming out of the ground? And I thought, well, okay, the tar sands are one place, certainly in Alberta. And then also there is a big relatively new oil field in the US, the Bakken field of North Dakota. So I thought, well, maybe I could just ride across from one to the other. And that was how the map and the plan developed.
Mike Tidwell 4:00
Now, the book is called A Voyage Across an Ancient Ocean. Why is it titled that? What is the ancient ocean?
Dave Goodrich 4:11
In prehistoric times, as in millions of years ago, the central part of North America was covered with a great inland sea. And this inland sea was the source of both of the two big oil deposits. It was a shallow sea and was very productive. Lots of phytoplankton grew there. And as the plankton died, they formed layers in the bottom bottom of the sea, ultimately, those layers became buried and under pressure, they formed giant oil deposits that were that we’re still digging now. It’s been a long time since that ocean has been there, but I thought it was a lot like being at sea which is what my original career was, I used to be on research ships
Mike Tidwell 5:04
That’s amazing. The idea of visiting an ancient ocean is compelling and the cover shows you biking across this vast landscape. Again, if you’re just tuning in, this is the new book from Dave Goodrich called a voyage across an ancient ocean, a bicycle journey to the northern Dominion of Oil. And Dave, you began this journey in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Tell us about that town. There has just been a fire there recently, right?
Dave Goodrich 5:36
Yes, in 2016. This was really the biggest one of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history. The fire had started during a hot dry summer, thinking about climate change. And during a hot, dry summer, they had this desperate fight to keep the fire out of the city of Fort McMurray. They were only partially successful. There were large neighborhoods that were burned out. Fort McMurray itself is built around the tar sands. It’s way up in the northern forests, the boreal forest of Alberta. And it’s about the same latitude as Hudson Bay, the rivers there don’t flow south, they actually flow north into the Arctic Ocean. So it’s a long way up there. And there are these giant fields where they’ve taken all the force out and they are digging up oil, these oil laced sands, and they use chemicals and heat to basically boil the oil and the tar out of the sands, and send it in pipelines, mostly down to the United States. So when you go take a look at it, it’s a pretty amazing place.
Mike Tidwell 6:59
Now, one plan for getting that ancient oil from an ancient ocean centered around Fort McMurray in Alberta where your book journey begins. One way to get that oil down to the United States and the rest of the world was the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which was just cancelled by our newly elected President Joe Biden. So that’s encouraging news and that’s a big breakthrough for the climate. But the irony of how your book begins, Dave, you visit Fort McMurray, they just had a massive fire that was clearly influenced by climate change in an area that produces the very substance that accelerates climate change. One question I have for you in the book you talk about a pyro-cumulonimbus storm. What is that?
Dave Goodrich 7:53
When you’ve got a big fire going on, you can have tremendous updrafts, convection, where the heat from the fire is rising, and it actually creates its own little thunderheads. Actually not little at all there. There were these giant thunder heads that were generated by the fire that have their own lightning. In some cases, they have a little bit of rain associated with them too. And you have very literally a firestorm? And it’s one of the reasons that one of the things that makes the fire so hard to put out is because this big updraft also picks up cinders and drops them ahead of the fire front. They always thought that this one river, the Athabaskan river, would be how they would stop a fire coming at the city and dropping red hot cinders on to very dry undergrowth just kept the fire going. So it was pretty amazing. There were actually videos taken of people trying to evacuate, and you watch cinders bouncing off the hoods of the hood of the car of the guy who’s taking the video, and it’s completely dark at noon, the only light you’re seeing is from the fire a few 100 yards away.
Mike Tidwell 9:12
You know, that’s fascinating. One of the things that strikes me about this book is that everything seems to be on a massive scale, this vast landscape, this huge problem of climate change. You talk about this massive wildfire that just visited the region. We talked about these massive tar sand oil filled fields, but you also have a photograph in the book and you talk about these massive man made lakes that you call tailings ponds. What are those massive lakes?
Dave Goodrich 9:47
These are actually the phrases tailing ponds is certainly a euphemism. These are some of the largest man made structures on the planet you can if you dial up Google Maps satellite You fortement Murray, they pop right out at you. These are giant. To get oil out of the tar sands, they have to use a lot of water, and they have to heat that water and use chemicals in it. And after the oils come out of the sands, this water still has a lot of oil and has a lot of chemicals in it, it’s very toxic. And they actually had the oil and had to settle out for a period of years. This is not a very warm part of the world, it gets to 40 below in the wintertime, Fahrenheit and Celsius. And so these tailing ponds are giant damned structures. And one of the things people are worried about is eventually what happens to those to these giant ponds. Particularly if oil development ceases and the old companies walk away.
Mike Tidwell 10:57
Right. And I mean, the good news is that just today as we’re recording this General Motors, made the stunning announcement that by the year 2035, they are only going to manufacture electric cars, they’re going to completely phase out the manufacturing of internal combustion engine cars that would even require the kind of gasoline derived from oil and potentially tar sands oil that you’re talking about. So these sort of stranded assets, thank god these assets may be stranded soon. But the environmental legacy that you described may haunt this region for hundreds of years. I want to shift for a moment to the actual journey that you take because you’re a scientist, you’re a climate activists, you describe this fossil fuel, mind blowing infrastructure that you see at the beginning of your trip, and then you then you pedal all the way 1100 miles to North Dakota to the fracking fields of North Dakota, but along the way, you’re a cyclist, and you’re having to take care of yourself mile after mile. Tell us what kind of bike did you use? How did you carry your stuff, give us a sense of the logistics of just cycling that distance. And, frankly, a pretty obscure part of the world.
Dave Goodrich 12:16
It was a little different. I’ve done some long bike rides before. But what I did was to carry all my gear and a lot, a lot of the weight was tools to repair the bike when I’m in the middle of nowhere. And clothes, things like that. And I would have them in a couple of bags that were attached to the bike panniers. At one point I was thinking, well, maybe I should take camping equipment along with me. Later on a guy told me that no, that’s not a good idea. I was saying, Well, you know, I know I should hang food for bears and things. He says no, I’d really I’d really be more worried about the wolves. And it’s like, oh, yeah, okay, so there’s this qualitative difference between hanging food and being food. So probably the hardest part of the ride was actually through this northern boreal forest because there’s really nothing up there. There is a sign at the outskirts of Portland Murray that says no, no gas or services for the next 200 kilometers. And for those 200 kilometers I was staying in the man camps and the lodges that were alongside the big oil developments in the tar sands. Then I broke out onto the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan and that was just much more as you might expect much more wide open. The problem was more the wind in Saskatoon Saskatchewan they have a ride where they take the local riders out into the wind for a couple of miles and have them ride back downwind. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that option. But basically I stayed in motels or man camps the whole way. And that was kind of nice at the end of the day to have a shower and not have to worry about pitching camp and breaking camp and things like that, or wolves either.
Mike Tidwell 14:20
Well, I just want to tell our listeners that Dave is a hysterically, funny companion. He has a really dry wit and you heard a little bit of it just now. You know, it’s one thing to hide your food from bears and actually be food for wolves. And there’s that sort of ironic sense of humor that goes throughout the book. And also just a keen level of detail and vividness to your book. Dave. You’ve come from a science background, but you write more like a writer. And it’s amazing. Tell us how did you end this sort of arduous, windswept lonely journey that no tourists in their right mind would take? How did you keep notes? How did you Chronicle your story as you made the ridet?
Dave Goodrich 15:29
Well, I know, I knew I wanted to write about it. And what’s essential when you’re writing is to be able to put yourself where you were when you’re writing about it. So each night I would put a blog together and post it and also take a lot of photographs so that when I do sit down at a screen like I am now, I can put myself back in that exact place and feel what the wind was like. I have just a little video that I had of wind through a wheat field, and I was getting creamed that day, I was just, it was everything I could do to do six miles an hour into the wind. And I just stopped and watched. You can see all the little gusts of wind 1000s of them coming through the wheat field. It’s like, okay, that’s, that’s where it was. That’s where I’ve got to put myself again, when I’m writing. Also, I tell my friends, it’s like, Okay, I’m a writer. Now not it’s not a scientist so I can make stuff up, you know?
Mike Tidwell 16:37
Well, it’s, just as a reminder, we’re talking to Dave Goodrich. He actually lives in Rockville, Maryland. He’s a former government climate scientist who’s lived and worked around the world on climate and ocean issues. His most recent book, which we’re talking about today, on the Upside Down podcast, is called A Voyage Across an Ancient Ocean, a bicycle journey through the northern Dominion of oil. And Dave, again, I want to compliment you, your ability to capture vivid details, at one point you write that you’ve taken a dozen trips of 500 miles or more on your bike. And as a result, there’s this little rusty patch on your bike frame, right below your head area, where the sweat just rolls off your chin and repeatedly strikes the bike frame. And it’s just very vivid. And there are a number of great details like that. But so you’re bicycling along this is this incredible open landscape in the middle of nowhere. And you meet workers and the fossil fuel industry along the way workers and tar sands industry and fracking industry. Tell us about some of the more interesting people that you met along the way.
Dave Goodrich 17:57
Well, there was a guy that I ran into in Fort McMurray, who is a power engineer who basically runs some of the giant compressors that they use in the tar sands extraction. And he took me on a trip through the tar sands north of Fort McMurray, showed me where essentially the refineries are, showed me some of the places where the forest had been replanted. Although you see a lot, there are a lot fewer of those that you see from the air. And his point was that we’re not, you know, trying to tell people we’re not terrible and evil folks, we’re basically trying to make a living, doing a dirty job producing something that everybody uses. And, you know, we’ve got sort of the same considerations. We’ve got family, we’ve got retirement, we’re trying to look forward to taking care of our kids and things. So the whole area around Fort McMurray is built around the oil sands and it is a big engineering operation. He also makes the point that we’re trying to do it in a cleaner manner. And that’s certainly true too. And that’s sometimes you see that in ads for the oil companies but you still realize that this is one of the biggest carbon sources on the planet both potentially and realistically. And you know, despite how cleanly you can do it, you are still taking a lot of carbon that was put down there millions in the ground millions of years ago and putting it up into the atmosphere.
Mike Tidwell 19:52
And you must have felt some connection with these workers because in the book you describe that yours is dirty. As a young man, you actually worked in the oil industry. Tell us about that.
Dave Goodrich 20:06
Yeah. I think I sort of summarize my career is that I started out as a derelict. And then I did work in the climate for 30 years and got back to being a derelict again on the bike. Right out of college, I went down to the Louisiana Delta, the Delta, the Mississippi and Louisiana. And I thought this would be a pretty exciting place to work. And it was, I knocked on the third door and the guy said, when can you be ready? And I said,well, I kind of got my stuff in the car. HE said, I’ve got a helicopter leaving in 15 minutes, can you be on it? And I said, Yes, I can. And that was the last I saw. They refer to it as the beach. The solid ground is the beach. So I was on oil platforms for the next couple of months, some offshore, some right in the swamps and marshes of the delta of the Mississippi. It’s a rough place, I remember. And it was all a cash economy. I remember I had a copy of Shakespeare and I would keep my cash under the Merchant of Venice.
Mike Tidwell 21:21
It’s amazing and like the entire book, Dave’s descriptions of his work off offshore and along the wetlands of Louisiana is just as vivid as his description of riding through the upper plains of Canada and into North Dakota. Dave, you mentioned in the book back to the more serious issue of climate change. You mention a climate scientist named Wallace Broker who just died actually last year, briefly tell us who he was and what is his famous quote that must have been ringing in your ears as you saw evidence of the wildfires in Canada and the massive extraction of dirty fossil fuels.
Dave Goodrich 22:11
Well, I actually had a chance to meet Wallace, Wallace Broker, Wally to everybody that he knew he was a scientist, a geochemist, just an idea factory, he could connect ideas in one part of the field to the other part of the field and come up with some rather amazing, amazing theories about how the ocean and climate work. But his famous quote, he said, After studying climate for most of his career, and watching how climate changes naturally, he said, climate is an angry beast, and we’re poking at it with sticks. And that rang in my mind, especially when I came down to the Bakken Field in North Dakota, because you can see all of these drilling platforms there. It’s like, okay, there are the sticks. There, and that in the unrestricted drilling of fossil fuels, we are, in his words, poking, poking the climate with sharp sticks.
Mike Tidwell 23:18
And again, the book is called a voyage across an ancient ocean. I’m your host here on the upside down podcast, Mike Tidwell, Executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, we’re talking with Dave Goodrich. He’s the author of this book, a former climate scientist of great prestige, who’s now retired and has a habit of taking incredible bike rides across North America with deep meanings attached to the stories he ultimately tells in his books. Now, Dave, this is a tough message in addition to being part travelogue. Just get away. It has the tough, sobering message of climate change. And so the book is sort of equally enjoyable and disturbing. But ultimately, I felt as I read it, it had a kind of uplifting tone to it, in part because toward the end, you make it into North Dakota, and you visit Teddy Roosevelt National Park. Tell us a little bit about the irony of that park, how it became a national park. And what was your journey through that part of North Dakota like?
Dave Goodrich 24:36
Well, I’m just to the south of the bahkan field in North Dakota is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s the only national park we have that’s named for a person. And this was where Teddy was a cowboy back in the 1880s. And this area was where he had his ranch and it’s also where the ruins. of his ranch are in the National Park. It’s called Elkhorn ranch. And one of the things that you can see from satellite images around Elkhorn Ranch is you see these little pink squares all around it and the satellite imagery. And those are drilling pads. And in my own mind, it was sort of like, wow, Teddy is surrounded. So what I found from looking at the history once, once Teddy got over his time as a cowboy and became president, his big battles were with the Trust’s in the early 1900s. And two of his biggest opponents were the Northern Securities trust of JP Morgan, and Standard Oil of John D. Rockefeller. And what was ironic to me, Roosevelt ultimately succeeded in breaking up both of those two trusts, but in a lot of ways they were broken up and have come back together. And they are they, they are two of the institutions that are pushing forward the fossil fuel agenda. JP Morgan Chase is the largest funder of fossil fuel extraction in the world. And Standard Oil got broken off ultimately into smaller Standard Oil components, two of which became Mobil Oil, and Exxon oil. Exxon used to be Eastern State Standard Oil. And of course, they’ve come back together as Exxon Mobil. And I’m thinking, how would teddi approach the problem of climate change? It would be very familiar to him he would be seeing this the same trust that he battled over 100 years ago, you’re in charge of fossil fuel extraction now.
Mike Tidwell 26:54
And the uplifting part for me was knowing that against significant odds, Teddy Roosevelt was successful in at least diminishing some of the brute power of these commercially and environmentally damaging companies. You’re right that the pendulum has sort of swung back. But now we have what appears to be a president who’s very serious about climate change, again, evidence, the executive order, just on his very first day in office of Joe Biden rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have had its beginnings right in Fort McMurray, where you began this fascinating trip in your book, with the with the couple of minutes that we have left. Dave, I’m wondering, what can you tell us was the most important thing that you learned from making this journey and writing this book?
Dave Goodrich 27:56
Well, I think the thing that struck me is, you know, that the oil and gas industry is, you know, is composed of people trying to make their living, many of the folks coming from a substantial distance around. But it’s also the nature of the oil and gas industry to be a boom and bust operation. In the voc and field of North Dakota. Back in 2011, this was the place where the lowest unemployment in the country was because the oil fields were booming. Now that oil prices have gone down there actually, there is a substantial bust going on in the oil fields. And it may be that this bust is something close to permanent. I feel like for the climate, we have to change the whole metabolism of how we get and use energy. But we’ve got some good starts on it, particularly with the new administration. And I, like you, find that very, very encouraging.
Mike Tidwell 29:10
Well, it’s a delightful book of voyage across an ancient ocean published by Pegasus. The author has been our guest on this podcast of upside down. Dave Goodrich. Dave, thank you so much for being with us.
Dave Goodrich 29:24
Thank you, Mike. And I really appreciate the work that he can that just the Climate Action Network does.
Charles Olsen 29:35
Thanks for listening to Upside Down. This podcast is produced by me, Charlie Olsen, with incredible support from the entire scan staff. Check out the show notes for links to all the things discussed in this episode. If you want to know more about how you can get involved with secant and the climate fight, check out our website at chesapeakeclimate.org. If you want to get in touch with us, follow us on instagram and twitter @CCAN and if Enjoy the work we do. Why don’t you share us with your friends? Sharing the show is a super easy way to help spread the word about the work we’re doing in the fight for bold climate actions. Thanks again for listening. I’ll see you next time.