Wellhead and Tailpipe

Reflections on eco-Orwellianism

By Paul Street

This is an age of eco-Orwellian cognitive dissonance. Three years and three months ago, then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Norway to negotiate increased U.S. access to the Arctic’s vast oil reserves. She sailed on a research vessel to see in person the melting of the Arctic under the pressure of anthropogenic global warming (AGW)—an experience she called “sobering.” Back on land, she went straight into a meeting to strategize for increased Arctic oil production with an Exxon Mobil executive and the CEO of Norway Statoil.

A different version of the same absurd, eco-Orwellian drama was acted out in a different Arctic setting by U.S. President Barack Obama this August. Obama went to Alaska to see firsthand the toll that carbon-driven planet-cooking is taking on Arctic frost. Obama’s junket north included a speech on climate change that “bordered on the apocalyptic” (New York Times) and argued with seeming passion that “we’re not acting fast enough” to heal the earth.

Never mind that just last May Obama cleared the way for the giant climate-changing multinational oil corporation Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to drill in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Shell’s leases are 70 miles out, in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills. Environmental groups had long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a decent future.” According to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport, speaking on the “PBS Newshour” last May, the Chukchi Sea announcement had environmental groups “surprised.”

Nobody should have been surprised. The decision came just four months after Obama had opened up a large portion of the southern U.S. Atlantic coast to new deep-water offshore drilling. In late March of 2010, three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Obama freed up 167 million acres along the eastern U.S. seaboard for Big Oil extraction.

The president’s “drill, baby drill” record ever since has been calamitous. It has greased the skids for the United States’ largely fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of an “all-of-the-above” (nuclear included) energy policy and so-called national energy independence. “Beneath his climate change policies,” Slate’s Eric Holthaus recently noted, “Obama is basically running a petrostate.” Consistent with that observation, Obama’s faux-green Alaska trip included a call by the president for an increase in U.S. Coast Guard vessels equipped with ice-cutting tools to further America’s competitiveness in the international race for the exploration, drilling, and extraction of Arctic oil.

How is it then that Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama, and the petro-statist Democratic Party more broadly are lauded by their “liberal” supporters and denounced by their Republican critics as environmentalist enemies of AGW? Beneath the undeniable contribution of Republican-leaning propaganda from the U.S. Big Carbon lobby and wishful partisan thinking on the part of Democrats, one key to the absurdity lay in a great cognitive failure that even many smart climate scientists have exhibited: a framing of the excess atmospheric carbon that is heating Mother Earth almost entirely around the sale and combustion of carbon at the expense of serious attention to the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels. The political culture and even much of the scientific and environmentalist discourse has been obsessed with what British climate change communications strategist George Marshall calls “the tailpipe” of carbon sale and emissions, ignoring the basic point-of-extraction “wellheads” and “mineheads” of AGW.

This over-focus on the back end of humanity’s extreme carbon pollution is no small part of “why,” in Marshall’s words, “we keep fueling the fire we want to put out.” It is also part of why so many can be fooled into thinking that a militantly petro-capitalist president like Obama is a planet-loving climate change-fighter. Beyond his seemingly heartfelt statements of concern for livable ecology, his calls for people to acknowledge and heed the warnings of climate science, and his support for limited renewable energy production, Obama does, after all, advocate and enforce various and increased “tailpipe” regulations and restrictions on final emissions (Never mind for now that he almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts for binding global carbon emission limits in Copenhagen in December of 2009.) U.S. truckers bitch about “Obama’s” Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on engine emissions as Obama presides over the phenomenal growth of U.S. gas and oil production, leading among other things to a bright light of burning gas that can be seen across the fracking fields of North Dakota from outer space.

The tailpipe/wellhead dissonance is hardly limited to the U.S., of course. As Marshall notes in his chilling book Don’t Even Think About It (2014), “In England, energy and climate change are combined into one government department leading to simultaneous action to reduce emissions and to boost oil production. One month the minister of Energy and Climate Change brags about the allocations of new licenses to release 20 billion barrels of oil around British coasts. The next month the Minister of Energy and Climate Change announces an ambitious plan for the government to reduce its emissions by ten percent.” The great British novelist and social critic George Orwell would be impressed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces detailed data on nationally aggregated per capita greenhouse gas emissions. This data has been used as the empirical basis for international climate negotiations since the early 1990s. The IPCC compiles no comparable factual record on national fossil fuel production. The head of the body’s Science Committee cannot recall a single instance in which it talked about limiting the production of fossil fuels, Marshall reports. It’s a seemingly obvious and overriding concern, something that might—in a rational world—have moved to the forefront of public and scientific climate change consciousness after an incident like Deepwater Horizon. We cannot process, sell, and burn the fossil fuels without first finding those fuels and digging and pumping them out of the ground. Thanks to the obsession with tailpipe over wellhead and minehead, it is left to officially marginalized “radical environmentalists” to make the connection between exploration, drilling, and mining on one hand and processing, sale, and actual burning on the other.

The term “radical” is ironic. What could be more conservative than efforts to preserve the world’s still vast stock (big enough to push Earth well past livability) of fossil fuels to sustain prospects for decent life? The relentless drive to push oil and gas extraction past the point of no return to decently livable ecology in the outward name of growth and in the hidden pursuit of profit is radical indeed: radically irresponsible and catastrophic.

Reader Supported News, October 3, 2015