Friday, April 16, 2010

Irrationality in Fanatics

Those fanatics who want to fight CO2 can behave irrationally. Here is a good example from this bit from Geoffrey Styles's Energy Outlook blog:
Let's start by stipulating that when you drill for oil, the various processes involved in producing, transporting, and refining it for use as fuels for vehicles and feedstocks for industry emit greenhouse gases (GHGs). Thus the basic concern behind the objections of the Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project, and WildEarth Guardians is simultaneously validated and rendered as a blinding glimpse of the obvious. It's also true--though you'd never know it from their filing--that the emissions from oil & gas exploration and production represent just a fraction of the lifecycle emissions associated with their use. How large a fraction depends on the specifics of composition, geology and location, but in general roughly 80% of the emissions occur during consumption, with refineries accounting for more of the "upstream" emissions than exploration, production and transportation do. According to Shell's 2008 GHG reporting, that company's emissions from exploration and production averaged 0.11 metric tons of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) per metric ton of production. Using basic conversion factors, that works out to around 0.8 lb of CO2e emitted per gallon, compared with roughly 20.4 lb of CO2e from burning a gallon of gasoline in your car.

In other words, except for emissions-intensive extraction processes like oil sands, the fraction of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to getting oil out of the ground and to a refinery amount to no more than 3-5% of the total lifecycle emissions from petroleum. As a reality check on this I looked up the emissions for Production Field Systems within Petroleum Systems in the most recent EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory. At 29 million tons per year of CO2e, including the methane emissions that the environmental groups objecting to the April 13th lease sale were so concerned about, this constitutes just 0.5% of total US energy-related emissions. Even if you cut them by half, the impact on global climate change would be negligible, and that's why the effort to derail the Montana and Dakotas lease sales makes me suspect it is aimed at more than just promoting lower-emitting drilling practices. When you include the groups' references to "climate tipping points" and the speculative impact of localized "CO2 domes", what these folks really seem to have in mind is shutting down large portions of US oil & gas production entirely.

The leasing delays these groups have already achieved and the prospect of further delays beyond September, whether in additional BLM reviews or in the courts, are of particular concern, because the leases in question fall mainly within the Williston Basin of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Many of them appear to overlap the Bakken Formation, which the US Geological Survey estimates to contain undiscovered, technically-recoverable oil resources of up to 4 billion barrels. So they're not just holding back a few marginal wells in the middle of nowhere; they're impeding development of a region that, with help from improved technology, is becoming one of the most important domestic oil sources in the onshore lower-48 states--even without all the hype about the Bakken that has been circulating in the blogosphere and the email rumor mill.
The problem with fanaticism is that it creates rigid thinking that is not amenable to new facts or alternative theories. People get caught up in their "cause" and end up doing things that normal people see as bizarre. They are beyond reach because their thought processes make them suspicious of anybody and anything except what reinforces their bizarre views.

Sadly, the initial starting point, such as a worry about CO2 is eminently reasonable. And it is worthy of debate and study and even action. But fanatics carry it beyond anything reasonable into the realm of the bizarre.

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