For the last week or so I've been scratching my head over news that the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of Interior, had delayed an oil & gas lease sale in Montana and the Dakotas by at least five months, while it studies how oil field activities contribute to climate change. BLM's press release on the subject mentioned a lawsuit related to a previous lease sale in the area, and I finally got around to tracking down what's behind all this. On one level it might be viewed as an effort by concerned citizens to ensure that BLM complies with the law regarding the environmental impacts associated with its activities, and that oil & gas development takes place in the most efficient and environmentally-responsible manner possible. Yet after reading through the filing in protest of the planned April 13 lease sale from the environmental groups behind the earlier lawsuit, I see a much more worrisome strategy aimed at impeding not just one sale, but the broader development of oil and gas resources that are essential to the energy and economic security of the US.
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.
BLM must follow the law in terms of evaluating the environmental impact of drilling activities on its oil & gas leases, but that surely does not extend to withholding leases from future sales on the basis that drilling them in any manner will make climate change worse. Whatever the motives of the groups attempting to block the legitimate exploitation of the oil resources of the Dakotas and Montana, they are tackling the climate problem from the wrong end. Impeding US production does little or nothing to reduce end-user consumption, where most of the GHG emissions in the oil and gas value chain occur. So while not reducing emissions in any globally- or even locally-meaningful way, they are making our trade deficit bigger. If successful, they might even inadvertently increase global GHG emissions, depending on where and how the additional oil we must import is produced. I hope that BLM can dispense with these misplaced efforts at obstructionism and reschedule the April 13th lease sale promptly.