By Jeff Balke
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Above all, Gerald T. Westbrook is a man concerned with truth. For hours he works at his computer in the small office of his Memorial-area home, writing his latest scholarly paper or drawing up a lecture. He's the kind of guy who writes everything out in lists, and packs boxes with files of news clippings and interesting tidbits he's come across in his research. His cane, needed after a knee injury, and hair as white as paper add to the professorial image.
He insists he's a firm believer in the scientific method, and a strong proponent for making sure research is dictated by facts, not personal agendas. Westbrook regularly delivers talks to trade associations and seminars to local universities. His scientific papers have appeared in several publications, and he's even had an opinion piece published by the Houston Chronicle.
Westbrook's specialty has spawned a near cottage industry of sorts in the Houston area. In this energy capital of America, eager listeners still abound for the message delivered by Westbrook and at least a handful of colleagues: Global warming threats are just so much foolishness, hatched by environmentalists to fuel the fears of the populace.
He himself boasts no more than a master's degree and a career focused on marketing and economics, rather than doctorates or published research in the field. But in this war for the public's collective mind and soul, credentials don't have to get in the way of a worthy crusade against the common enemy called environmentalists.
Westbrook still considers himself a scientist. "A degree's not everything," he says. "Look at Rush Limbaugh. He's only got, what, one and a half years of junior college? And he's smart as a whip."
In the case of global warming, Westbrook believes environmentalists have subverted the scientific process to manufacture the appearance of a consensus. "You would think with the war on terror and homeland defense, there would be no attention paid to this issue at all," Westbrook says.
An energy economist, he retired as head of the marketing department after 40 years at Dow Chemical. He helps out at his wife's flower shop, Roomful of Flowers, and his TSBV consulting company forecasts the demand of petrochemicals for groups looking to get into a particular market. Westbrook doesn't watch much TV, but when he does it's usually Fox News. He counts the hosts of talk-radio shows among the most influential people in his life. Although he occasionally picks up The New York Times to "find out what the far left is up to," he researches primarily from newsletters and the Internet, explaining that he wants be sure his information is free from taint and political bias. With liberals now firmly in control of the media, universities and entertainment industries, he says, the Web is the only medium where conservatives can get the truth out. Westbrook insists that everything he uses must come from the no-spin zone, sources that tell it like it is, then leave it for him to decide. And he likes his science the same way.
He traces his love of energy to the coal-heated house of his youth. "When you got up in the morning, the furnace was almost out and the place was pretty damn cold," Westbrook recalls. When the family upgraded to natural gas, well, that was different. "Natural gas was wonderful," he beams. You can see it in his eyes: The man loves energy, and he'll tangle with anyone who tries to give petroleum or its by-products a bad name. "Ask yourself," he says, "where would society be today if we did not have plastics?"
Westbrook's interest in science was sparked by a tiny unfenced refinery that made low-octane gasoline, kerosene and the like in his hometown of Saskatchewan. His father used to take him to wander through the distillation towers to look at the furnace. It was about 12 feet high and tapered off into a stack, with fire visible through the air vents. Occasionally excess gases ignited in the flare stack, spouting a giant flame into the sky. This was the '40s, entering the golden age of science fiction, and for the young Westbrook, it must have looked like something far into the future.
"It's almost like space-age exploration, only you do it on the microscale," Westbrook says of petrochemicals. "You look at some of these catalysts or molecules floating around there, and it's almost like you're floating in space."
Westbrook went on to collect a master's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan and another master's in energy economics at the University of Minnesota, both within two years. "This was sort of a salvage job," he says. He originally set out to get a Ph.D. "I just came to the conclusion I did not want the university career," he says. "I was too practical-oriented, too applied-oriented, too much interested in commercial things."
For his thesis he did "paper research," meaning no lab work was involved, and his career has chiefly been in marketing and economics.
He realizes his strong ties to the energy industry may make people skeptical of his conclusions, but Westbrook describes himself as a bit of a maverick who never quite got along with the folks in charge. The oil industry "would never pick me to be their spokesman," he says. He just believes global warming is the latest unfair attack on an industry that has done so much for society.