Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whatever happened to Conservation?

In a brilliant book, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, noted historian Samuel Hayes connects the emergence of the conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt with the rise of a technocratic elite convinced that their knowledge could benefit the world. Governments created departments of Forestry, Fisheries, Natural Resources, Agriculture, etc. all populated with technocrats aiming to do what they saw as the morally correct thing: conserve resources for the benefit of all by avoiding unnecessary waste. It is stunning to realize how far the technocrats of today have drifted from that vision.

The image on the left shows an oil storage tank. Everything looks normal. But, an infrared view of the same tank taken at the same time, shows the tank is leaking methane. This is the sort of thing that drove the original conservationists batty -- the unnecessary and unproductive waste of valuable resources. Leaks like this -- from wells, storage tanks, and pipelines -- are commonplace and few companies do anything about them despite the fact that the EPA has evidence showing such fixes to be cost effective.

Given that nobody is seriously monitoring this, it is hard to get a real estimate of the problem. However, the EPA estimates a total of about 3 trillion cubic feet. This amount has the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States. As people have begun to pay attention, government scientists and industry officials have come to the conclusion that the real figure is almost certainly higher.

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