New U.S. Oil and Gas Emissions Could Nearly Erase Environmental Gains From Decline in Coal
One of the more positive environmental developments in the U.S. in recent years has been the shutdown of deadly, high-emitting coal-fired plants. But now, a study has found that new oil and gas infrastructure could counteract much of that progress.
The report, released by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) Wednesday, found that the oil and gas industry is building or expanding 157 plants over the next five years and increasing drilling operations. Together, these projects could release the greenhouse gases of 50 new coal-fired plants by 2025.
"The US is already struggling to meet climate commitments and transition to a low-carbon future," EIP Research Director Courtney Bernhardt said in a press release. "This analysis shows that we're heading in the wrong direction and really need to slow emissions growth from the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries."
Our new report, “Greenhouse Gases from Oil, Gas, and Petrochemical Production,” finds that oil, natural gas and pet… https://t.co/3v5pT92dzB— Environmental Integrity Project (@Environmental Integrity Project)1578494066.0
The findings cast doubt on the argument that natural gas could be a "transition fuel" from dirtier energy sources to renewable energy, Courthouse News Service pointed out. While the fracking boom, and the cheap natural gas that followed, has encouraged utilities to move away from coal, the continued growth of the sector threatens to undo the good it has enabled. While greenhouse gas emissions at U.S. power plants decreased by around 322 million tons between 2012 and 2017, new infrastructure and production is set to increase emissions by 227 million tons by 2025. That would mean a 30 percent increase over the industry's 2018 emissions, the report found.
"So that pretty much erases a lot of the progress since 2012," Bernhardt told Courthouse News Service.
This is backed up by other researchers. A study released Tuesday by the Rhodium Group found that U.S. emissions fell less in 2019 than they would have if it weren't for the oil and gas sector: While coal plant emissions fell 18 percent, almost half of this was offset by rising oil and gas emissions, Climate Liability News reported.
The EIP based its data on projected oil and gas field outputs from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and on the greenhouse gas limits included in Clean Air Act permits granted to the 157 large projects it considered. The sector's total emissions by 2025 will likely be higher than the EIP figure because that figure does not include smaller oil and gas projects that did not require permits.
All this new infrastructure has consequences beyond contributing further to the climate crisis. The non-carbon pollutants the 157 large projects would emit include
- 119,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog.
- 47,200 tons of nitrogen oxides, which help create "dead zones" in water that kill fish.
- 11,100 tons of deadly particulate matter air pollution.
- 8,800 tons of sulfur dioxide, which can harm the lungs.
The new oil and gas facilities would also increase the pollution burden in places that already struggle with public health.
A map of the locations of major future emission sources from the oil, gas, and chemical sectors in the U.S. from 20… https://t.co/3TkoF7PE14— Environmental Integrity Project (@Environmental Integrity Project)1578522120.0
Around half of the new projects will be built in Texas and Louisiana, Climate Liability News reported. This includes a new Formosa Plastics facility in St. James, Louisiana, a majority black community that already has one of the highest cancer rates in the U.S. The facility could release more greenhouse gases than any of the other 156 projects EIP considered.
"This is a slow death. I think this is genocide — you're intentionally killing people," Sharon Lavigne, the founder and president of grassroots, anti-fossil-fuel group RISE St. James, told Climate Liability News. "We are not about to give up."
EIP made four recommendations for countering the rise in greenhouse gases and other pollutants from oil and gas facilities.
- Issuing permits that included measures for limiting emissions.
- More funding for state and federal environmental agencies so they could monitor more effectively.
- More accurate methods for assessing emissions and pollutants from tanks, equipment and flares.
- Permits that required "fenceline monitoring" to make sure concentrations of gases were discovered before they left a plant and entered a community.
"We need to get on top of the runaway growth in greenhouse gas emissions from oil, gas, and petrochemicals and get standards in place to restrain that growth before it's too late," EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer told Grist.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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