They Seem Like Nice Ladies..But: The Logic of Producing Essential Things Elsewhere (For the Environment?)

TEHRAN – Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has issued an order, paving the way for women with high capabilities to boost presence in the oil industry

..this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience….To the conservation movement, it is only production that causes environmental degradation; the consumption that supports the production is rarely acknowledged to be at fault. The ideal of the run-of-the-mill conservationist is to impose restraints upon production without limiting consumption or burdening the consciences of consumers.
— Wendell Berry

This is a great gig.  You can use mega-amounts of fossil fuels in your products (like, say the Outdoor Recreation industry) and pretend you have the moral high ground if you are against production in our country.  You can make zillions of bucks of people offshoring manufacturing of your products- and then critique “greedy” producers of the material you use.  I still don’t get “domestic oil and gas hate”.. who’s behind it, and what it’s really about.  There seems to be a steady stream of “they are bad” articles coming out, especially from sources allied with a certain political party.  So yes, there seems to be some kind of organized campaign against these folks.  But just the domestic ones (seems equally true in Britain).  So a person has to wonder what the end game of this is really about.

I don’t want to be accused of listening to Fox News (the horror!) but I had read somewhere about the idea that Russia had been funding some ENGOs in Europe with the idea of making them more reliant on Russian sources of energy.  And Fox News had a story so here it is.

So I said to myself “how could I ever figure out the truth here? Did they or didn’t they?”  And then I had a revelation… it doesn’t matter who funds groups if their goals are the same. Keep it in the ground (here) is fundamentally the same as extract it (there).  Who wins? other countries of Questionable Human Rights and Environmental Records. Who loses? Our workers and communities.   Or is it just that if the environmental and human rights impacts occur elsewhere, we can ignore them more readily? I hope that is not the case.

On thing we learned from Covid is that some things are more essential than others. So let’s take a look at where the fundamentals of our economy (fossil fuels) are currently coming from.

In the every-handy EIA information, we can find a list of countries we import oil from. This Politico story from March talked about outreach to Venezuela, the Saudis and Iran (see the nice ladies in the photo above), due to the desire to stop Russian imports. As the story says,

“The U.S. has long had complicated and tense relationships with all three countries, which in recent years have been accused of everything from election fraud to human rights atrocities.”

Given all that, and the fact that imported oil has arguably a larger environmental impact, why wouldn’t we want to produce as much domestically as possible and import the rest from the most agreeable and socially and environmentally responsible countries? It seems logical to me.  We don’t seem to try to offshore other industries due to their impacts on the environment.. in fact, there is a Buy America push by the Biden Administration. So what did the oil and gas workers do to get left out?

For a long time, some groups have been pushing the Biden Admin to stop oil and gas leasing on federal lands.  In fact, he felt the need to commit to that during the campaign, despite the fact that many argue that it is illegal.  As part of that campaign, this  USGS study, often mischaracterized (even by an E&E News headline in Scientific American; I expect better from them) as “Fossil Fuel Extraction on Public Lands Produces One Quarter of U.S. Emissions” played a large role, so much so that it is frequently used in news stories as if it were a fact that everyone understands.

Whereas the study actually studies emissions not just from extraction but from use, see page 3 under introduction.

Emissions are produced through two processes: (1) the combustion of fuel for electricity generation, mechanical work, heating, or use as a feedstock and (2) the fugitive emission of gases during the processes of extracting and moving fuel.

Which we can imagine would have more or less the same effect (or possibly greater?) to the atmosphere from other countries, depending on the various attributes of the resource,  extraction technologies and regulations, and transportation to the US.  Because if it’s about carbon emissions, the atmosphere there is the same one as here.

One of the first symbolic actions in the new Administration was to stop the Keystone Pipeline from Canada (from whom we import oil and uranium).  It’s almost as if part of that symbolism was pledge of fealty to party investors by dissing a partner vital to our own energy security.

And what technologies exist to reduce climate change? Those requiring uranium (also imported) and other rare earths, often found on federal land in the US.  For example

Uranium originating in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan accounted for 47% of total uranium purchased by U.S. COOs in 2020. Canadian-origin uranium and Australian-originan uranium together accounted for 34% (Table 3).

Many of these minerals occur on western federal lands, potentially running into obstacles in the efforts to “conserve” them.   That means that it’s OK to encourage thousands of tourists to come to a new “protected” area, but not OK to mine, or have drill rigs. Personally, drill rigs don’t bother me when I recreate. Crowds are much worse in my opinion.  Unleashed dogs chasing wildlife and all that- seem to bother say, deer or antelope, more than drill rigs (which tend to stay in the same place over time), from what I’ve observed.

It seems to me that there are certain projects like the Keystone Pipeline, Bears Ears, and the idea of stopping oil and gas leasing on federal lands (I think mostly onshore, but who knows?)  that from my environmental perspective, have mostly symbolic value.  So.. who determined that these specific issues were so important?  And what does that portend for domestic production of necessary post-fossil fuel material? Is “protecting our landscapes” more important than national security, and whose interests does that calculation serve? Because I don’t remember being asked.

Next Post: Are (Domestic) Oil and Gas Folks Really That Bad?

8 thoughts on “They Seem Like Nice Ladies..But: The Logic of Producing Essential Things Elsewhere (For the Environment?)”

  1. There was a story in the local newspaper about a proposed lithium mine in Northern Nevada and Southeast Oregon on BLM land. It is being opposed by some tribal members and a group of environmentalists.
    I was opposed to a pipeline to export natural gas running next to my backyard. So I can relate to the not in my backyard mentality.
    These are some very difficult decisions and we need to hold these companies to the highest standards of work while protecting the environment.
    I like the quote from Wendell Barry.

  2. Yup, we talked about that here
    I think we’ll spend time discussing this in the future, as there are (1) people who need it for environmental reasons (2) national security implications (3) local people who don’t want the landscape disrupted and (4) the uniquely (hopefully) privileged views of Native Americans (whether specifically religious in nature or not)(but who also might not agree with each other, leading to further complications).
    Where I live there is pushback against industrial wind with the same elements, and people are often derogatorily called “NIMBY”s..
    The question of who should suffer for the environmental, social, economic, and national security of the country is ultimately political in nature, and should be debated and discussed openly.
    I think if you were to ask the people in my neck of the woods, they would say “nuclear is best, as you can decarbonize and put them (like Wyoming is trying) at existing coal plants… then you don’t have to pay workers for ” a just transition” and you already have the powerlines in place.” But if you’re next to the uranium mine or the power plant you might not agree. To my mind those are the larger conversations we’ve never had. Somebody takes over the energy ship and sails until it runs into the (predictable) storms.

    • “The question of who should suffer for the environmental, social, economic, and national security of the country is ultimately political in nature, and should be debated and discussed openly.” Unfortunately a government that runs on special interest money and minority rule is not well-designed to answer questions about the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run, or about equity at all (never mind thinking about the entire world). Maybe you could design a process for a national energy plan that engages all the potential winners and losers in an equitable manner?

      Why are oil companies disliked? Their closest analog is probably the tobacco industry with regard to how they have covered up the harm they are doing.

      Why are Americans only against American oil and gas? I don’t think they would be real effective pressuring, say, Iran. They don’t want Iran to produce either, but if those nice Iranian environmentalists can’t influence that on their own (not likely), then demand must be reduced by providing relatively affordable, alternative non-polluting sources of energy (located as benignly as possible). Keeping more oil in the ground anywhere will promote demand reduction everywhere (by raising prices in the short term and incentivizing cheaper technologies in the longer term).

      Why don’t environmentalists fight consumption instead of production? Well, which one of these provides a more concrete target to shoot at? And it’s not that they are not focusing on consumption, too; it’s not as visible, but you hear a lot about “sustainability” from lots of places these days.

  3. In my view, one of the biggest obstacles to constructive change is what I call the environmentalist industrial complex. More precisely, it’s the stranglehold a select few groups (with friends in media and politics) seem to have on the environmental narrative and even morality, and on who gets to draw the lines and, perversely, who gets to cross them (like progressive-thinking recreation) when it’s convenient. I love that Berry is quoted here; to any degree that environmentalists might prefer to read Abbey (who’s horrible) over Berry, the size and shape of this problem is made clear.
    Full disclosure, I have identified as an environmentalist my whole life. The movement is clearly in crisis.


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