April 2016
Columns

Energy issues

Unbridled hypocrisy
William J. Pike / World Oil

Lately, the world appears to be wobbling on its axis. The cause is, without a doubt, hypocrisy gone out of control. How so, say you? Well, on March 10, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced  a campaign against methane emissions, through regulations that would target the oil and gas industry. The goal set is no less than a 40% reduction in emissions, from 2012 levels, over the next decade. Of course, the announcement was greeted with all sorts of praise. But not from the American Petroleum Institute, where V.P. Kyle Isakower noted, “The administration is catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers.” Yep.

As noted by the Associated Press, the regulatory process begins by requiring the oil and gas industry to provide information that helps the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This information is used to identify the most significant sources of pollution, and how technology can be applied at the most reasonable costs.

Perhaps you think it’s me that is being hypocritical. Not so. Almost exactly in sequence with the announcement (how is it that two guys make announcements in a rose garden and not on horseback from a ranch?), came an article in the journal, Science, detailing research from the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). The report, detailed by Natasha Geiling on the website, Climate Progress (http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2016/03/17/3760811/rising-methane-due-to-agriculture/), finds that the majority of methane released to the atmosphere since 2006 came from bacteria generated by agricultural operations and cattle flatulence. Livestock production, alone, accounts for 35% (2.2 billion tons) of the methane released to the atmosphere. I guess that is better than exploding cows.

Exactly how, you might ask, did NIWA researchers differentiate between methane from hydrocarbons and other sources, and methane from agriculture and cattle? They did it by looking at the gases’ isotopic signatures—the ratio of various carbon isotopes—using data from monitoring stations around the world. By looking at the distinct isotopic signatures, the researchers could differentiate between methane produced from fracing, for instance, and methane produced from agriculture, because they each have different signatures.

Rice is a bad character. The report concludes that, aside from cow flatulence, rice farming is responsible for a serious percentage of the methane released into the air. The roots of rice plants, when submerged in flooded fields, prove to be a favorite food source for bacteria. The by-product of the banquet is methane. With 20% of some 3.5 billion people’s diets, worldwide, composed of rice, the problem is substantial. While the study had detractors, Geiling noted that another recent study by the Karlsuhe Institute of Technology agreed somewhat with the NIWA study, noting that increased emissions from the oil and gas sector, combined with emissions from wetlands and maybe animal husbandry, appear to have caused the renewed increase in methane emissions.

At this point, you might excuse government for not having done more homework, and for their penchant for blaming the oil and gas industry for everything malicious in the world. But read more of Geiling’s article, and that thought disappears completely. It’s hypocrisy at its least subtle. For, you see, Congress has actually “explicitly forbidden the EPA from collecting greenhouse gas emission data from livestock producers, making it the only major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. that enjoys such an exemption.” I found that hard to believe, so I checked the EPA site. Sure enough, animal husbandry and the agricultural industry are not on the list of those groups required to report greenhouse gas emission levels.

I guess you figure that I then got mad at the government. In truth, I did, but only for a few minutes, until I had thought it out. Or, at least I thought I had. The problem, I concluded, was that we had been out-lobbied, having believed for a long time that our industry was very lax in lobbying Washington, and that the Midwestern agriculture industry was very busy—and very good—at it. Wrong again. According to the OpenSpeaking Lobby Spending Database, the two sectors are neck-and-neck in the lobbying business. The oil and gas lobbying spend for 2015 was $129.7 million, while the agribusiness spend for the same year was $132.5 million. I don’t think that $2.8 million could have made that much of a difference.

It’s the electorate, stupid. I had pretty much put the issue to bed when I left work for the day. Then my wife and I turned on another round of the televised presidential candidate debates, after I had first removed my brain, and the question returned in Technicolor. As I listened to the candidates (this time, the Republican candidates), I realized what the problem was. Facts don’t matter much to politicians—Republicans or Democrats. What matters is what sort of bellicose, undefendable statement they can make, next, that will appeal to this or that element of the electorate.  Whether it is grounded in truth—or not—makes little difference to the politician, because it makes little difference with the electorate.

It is now clear, if it was not before, that the electorate’s mind is pretty much made up on any given issue. Political rhetoric won’t change that and, if not targeted at the beliefs of the electorate, won’t produce votes either. It’s the electorate—large sectors of the American public—that sets the agenda. It is they, who believe that the oil and gas industry is the devil incarnate, trying to harm them at every turn. It is the oil and gas industry that cares for nothing but profits. It is the oil and gas industry that … that … that, ad infinitum. It is, primarily, the politicians that adopt that mantra, as they must, to stay in office. wo-box_blue.gif 

About the Authors
William J. Pike
World Oil
William J. Pike has 47 years’ experience in the upstream oil and gas industry, and serves as Chairman of the World Oil Editorial Advisory Board.
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