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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Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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