Oil and gas production in the Permian basin has exploded over the past decade, despite the big hit it took from the pandemic-induced downturn.
Looking forward, while many U.S. shale basins face an uncertain future given poor financial prospects, production in the Permian is expected to continue to grow. A new report warns that left unchecked, emissions from the Permian could wreck climate targets.
The Permian “Climate Bomb”
Over the past eight years or so, oil production from the Permian has grown five-fold from 1 million barrels per day (Mb/d) to nearly 5 Mb/d. The production growth created a spiderweb of industrial activity, including the construction of thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines, compressor stations, storage tanks and export terminals.
Over the years, industry proponents have boasted that this growth is a massive win for employment growth, energy security, geopolitical leverage, and even for the climate. Many of those arguments are overstated or, especially in the case of emissions reductions, outright false.
But the train left the station long ago, and the question in the 2020s will be if policymakers take any action to rein in the growth.
The question in the 2020s will be if policymakers take any action to rein in the growth.
A new multimedia storytelling project and six-part report warns that the “Permian Bomb” presents an environmental, public health, social and climate threat. The series is a joint effort by a group of environmental groups, including Oil Change International, Earthworks, and Center for International Environmental Law.
For instance, one knock-on effect of the fracking boom was the explosive growth of the petrochemical industry, which sprung up along the Gulf Coast to turn natural gas liquids into plastics and other petrochemicals. The pollution associated with such plants has created a toxic mess for Gulf Coast communities, while exacerbating the global plastics and climate crisis.
Petrochemicals and export terminals lock in the expansion, which creates the need for more drilling. “This has intensified existing environmental injustice and racism across this vast region, and spread it to areas yet to experience it,” the environmental groups state in their new publication.
Petrochemicals is one of the last redoubts for the oil industry – facing peak demand in transportation, the oil and gas industry has pinned its hopes on the growth of plastics.
Another enormous problem from the fracking boom has been the methane crisis. Rampant flaring and venting of gas at drill sites has contributed to global methane pollution that is heating the planet. Cutting methane emissions in half by 2030 could head off 0.3-degree-Celsius temperature rise by the 2040s.
But, of course, there is almost no regulation or oversight. Texas regulators have done nothing to crack down on reckless drillers, and the federal government is only now drawing up new rules on methane, which will take time to implement.
“A ‘code red’ demands emergency action, not business as usual.”
That has advocates calling on the U.S. government to hit the brakes. “Unless President Biden defuses the Permian climate bomb exploding in my backyard, we won’t prevent catastrophic climate change or meet our national climate commitments,” Miguel Escoto, a field advocate for Earthworks, said in a statement. “A ‘code red’ demands emergency action, not business as usual.”
U.S. climate policy incomplete
The report calling for restraints on the Permian basin fits into a growing international movement to not only address demand-side policy, but to put new limits on fossil fuel supply. For years, activists have fought individual oil, gas, and coal projects on a one-off basis, blocking a specific pipeline or power plant before moving onto the next target. But now, increasingly, they are calling for more comprehensive national and international limits on production.
Those calls reflect a growing consensus. The International Energy Agency said earlier this year that new fossil fuel projects need to be off the table if the world is to get on track with a net-zero emissions by 2050 pathway. More recently, the United Nations updated its Production Gap report, which said that fossil fuel supply needs to wind down at a rate of 6 percent annually this decade in order for the world to hit stated climate targets – a problem given that governments still collectively plan on expanding at a rate of 2 percent per year.
The Biden administration’s struggles are illustrative. The U.S. is on the verge of signing into law the largest and most impactful legislation on climate change in U.S. history, with an estimated $550 billion funneled into clean energy tax incentives and other climate programs over ten years. Although it is an enormous milestone, it is likely still short of what is needed.
The gamble the administration is taking is that the big new pot of money dedicated to clean energy will edge out fossil fuels over time.
The EPA is also formulating new fuel economy regulations on cars and trucks, and methane limits on oil and gas production. But the Biden administration does not appear to have the appetite to address the growth of fossil fuels. The closest it came was a freeze on new leases on public lands earlier this year, which would only impact a small portion of land on which the industry drills. That effort was shot down in federal court, and the Biden administration has largely backed down.
The gamble the administration is taking is that the big new pot of money dedicated to clean energy will edge out fossil fuels over time. In that way, the market will eventually topple oil and gas. There is little doubt that we are on that pathway – that the energy transition is unfolding and likely accelerating – but the big question is whether or not that is enough to arrest the worsening climate crisis.
For now, there is little restraint on drillers in West Texas.