Securing Foreign Oil: A Case for Including Military Operations in the Climate Change Impact of Fuels

July 22, 2010 |

By Brooke Coleman, New Fuels Alliance

Securing Foreign Oil is the title of Adam Liska’s and Richard Perrin’s recent article in Environment Magazine detailing why military emissions should be included in the carbon intensity (CI) values of petroleum fuels. The article was discussed on the New York Times Green blog and will no doubt spark debate about whether we are taking things too far by considering military emissions.

The case for including military emissions in the CI value of petroleum is pretty simple: it is well within the new system boundary recently established by U.S. EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for carbon scoring fuels.

The logic goes something like this.

For years, the carbon score of a particular fuel was determined by adding up the supply-chain emissions associated with producing, transporting and using the fuel from cradle to grave. In this scenario, it is possible to argue that military emissions are fair game, but it is not obvious.

More recently, EPA and CARB expanded the scope of consideration for carbon accounting to include indirect land use change (ILUC). ILUC is the theory that the use of land for biofuels deprives someone else of using the land, which in turn drives the other entity (e.g. food or animal feed production) to new land. So even though the land is cleared by someone else, and the biofuel entity is not associated with this land clearing in any direct way, biofuels are penalized for being indirectly associated with this outcome as part of the world economy.

The decision to include this alleged “indirect effect” for biofuels fundamentally changes what is fair game for carbon accounting. First, the effect can be well outside of the supply chain of the fuel. Second, it does not matter that there are more proximate causes of the effect (i.e. in the case of pushing food producers to new land, the more proximate cause of the land clearing in question is food production itself). Third, regulators are willing to ascribe 100% of this modeled effect to one cause (biofuels), even though “[a]t the underlying level, tropical deforestation is … best explained by multiple factors and drivers acting synergistically rather than by single-factor causation, with more than one-third of the cases being driven by the full interplay of economic, institutional, technological, cultural and demographic variables.”

So, let’s look at the article through this lens.

First, the (military) effect is arguably within the supply-chain of petroleum. The article focuses on the subset of military expenditures dedicated to securing the maritime oil pipeline from the Middle East, because “warships are to oil what combine harvesters are to biofuels.” Even if you disagree with this statement, the warships that “protect energy commodity tankers and their attendant facilities from attack” (as the U.S. GAO puts it) are certainly more associated with oil production than biofuels are with land converted for animal feed in Brazil.

Second, unlike with biofuels and ILUC, there is no more proximate cause for the existence of these warships and military expenditures than oil. The commitment of warships to maritime energy pipeline security is explicitly for protecting the passage of oil to the U.S. marketplace.

Third, the fact that war is waged for a variety of reasons (energy, power, threats to key allies) does not render the inclusion of military emissions for oil any more questionable. This is true for two primary reasons: (1) instead of allocating all military emissions to oil, the researchers focus on maritime pipeline security, a military practice directly attributable to oil production and dependence ; (2) CARB and EPA have already demonstrated their willingness to take an outcome (overseas land conversion) that occurs as a result of “multiple factors and drivers acting synergistically” and ascribe it to the lifecycle of one variable (biofuels).

Liska and Perrin allocate about 20 percent of the Department of Defense budget to oil security. If they were to follow the lead of the ILUC movement, they would apply all of it to the lifecycle of oil, playing the “single factor causation” game touted as good science by some ILUC researchers.

Now for a couple of final points.

There is no easy out for biofuel critics. The study comes from two University of Nebraska professors who not only did not take biofuels or agriculture money to write the article, but have never taken money from the biofuels industry, corn groups, or any other fuel entity. The article is a direct descendant of a previous article funded by the University of Nebraska’s Center for Energy Sciences Research entitled Indirect land use emissions in the life cycle of biofuels: regulations vs. science. Liska and Perrin generally rely on DOE, USDA funding, and recently took a grant from the Environmental Defense Fund to analyze petroleum. This cannot be said of many of the most vocal ILUC researchers, who have taken money from oil companies directly and indirectly to do the ILUC work through BP’s Energy Biosciences Institute (2009 Annual Report, p. 78)  and the Institute for Transportation Studies (2008 Annual Report, pp. 44-45).

Finally, the article should be lauded for painting a very clear picture of where we are going in terms of foreign oil dependence. It discusses the sheer magnitude of military GHG emissions, points out that OPEC nations hold an increasing percentage of a dwindling world oil supply, highlights the extreme economic costs of foreign oil dependence, and buttresses its case that war and oil are intertwined.

Carbon accounting aside, the authors do a great job of capturing the unsustainable path we are on, both economically and environmentally. This is the big picture often lost in the inaccessible world of carbon accounting.

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Category: Policy

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