The Permian Climate Bomb

Oil and gas production in the Permian Basin remains a major global warming threat even as the number of rigs and wells, and volume of production, dip.

The shale bubble is bursting. The oil and gas industry was teetering toward financial failure before the Covid-19 pandemic, and now it is trying to take advantage of the national emergency by lobbying for more subsidies, bigger tax breaks, and even weaker regulation. This is particularly important in the Permian Shale Basin of west Texas and southeast New Mexico, where a return to the aggressive pre-Covid industrial expansion would mean climate disaster for the whole world.

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The Permian, the Earth’s largest oil and gas climate bomb, has a fuse that was lit seven years ago. In 2019 it surpassed the Ghawar oil field of Saudi Arabia to become the most prolific oil producing shale basin on the planet. As a result, the US became a net oil exporter for the first time in half a century. Some energy analysts have estimated that the Permian could push domestic oil production to double over the next 10 years and continue to dominate the supply market as far as 2040.

Plain and simple, increases in oil and gas production of that magnitude — and over such a long timeframe — would be game over for climate.

Even now, during a collapse in demand that caused oil prices to temporarily sink into negative territory, the Permian remains a significant, existential threat to the world.

Research suggests methane pollution in the Permian is 60 percent higher than other oil and gas basins.

There is so much oil in the Permian that its total impact on the global climate may be worse than even the Canadian tar sands. While the crude extracted from the Permian is “light and sweet,” meaning it’s cheaper and easier to process than tar sands crude, its life cycle from extraction to end use is still carbon-intensive.

Oil and gas companies have a pervasive problem with methane pollution, a greenhouse gas 86 times worse for climate than carbon dioxide (the IPCC gives the world 30 years to achieve net zero carbon pollution). While CO2 stays in the atmosphere longer, methane, as the Scientific American put it, “warms the planet on steroids for a decade or two before decaying to CO2,” and controls how fast climate warming occurs. Whether an operator is specifically after natural gas or exclusively oil, methane pollution is inevitable — it leaks into the air or is intentionally vented, or flared.

The industry’s difficulty in and resistance to addressing methane emissions has been documented extensively during more than 1,400 field investigations since 2014 by Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project. Research published this year in the journal Science Advances backed those findings, suggesting methane pollution in the Permian is 60 percent higher than other oil and gas basins. Worse, some wells were found to be releasing methane — in leaks, intentional venting, and malfunctioning flares — at more than 100 times the industry average — without anybody noticing for who knows how long. But we do know that until these studies were released, oil and gas industry front groups were claiming that Permian methane pollution was decreasing.

Because methane is invisible to the naked eye, oil and gas production in the Permian remains a threat to climate even as the number of rigs and wells and volume of production dip. It takes special equipment with technical experts, like Earthworks’ certified staff thermographers, to detect methane and other health hazardous oil and gas air pollution. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, we discovered that as prices were declining, unlit flares were on the rise, possibly because fixes just aren’t a priority for operators that have repeatedly opposed requirements for regular maintenance and repair.

Industry has the ability to detect the pollution, too, but wasn’t serious about finding methane leaks before Covid-19 and the economic downturn. Now, with layoffs, bankruptcies, and the suspension of inspections by some federal and state regulators, the likelihood of pollution going unnoticed and unaddressed only increases.

The gamble some in the industry are making is that this bust is short term.

We must seize this moment to stop any further expansion of oil and gas development. Unfortunately, it seems that major oil and gas companies are intent to double down, instead of getting out of the Permian.

The gamble some in the industry are making is that this bust is short term. Chaotic decline in the Permian, including closing-off wells and bankruptcies, may actually benefit larger oil and gas companies who then have a chance to gobble up cheap assets. It’s possible that when the Covid-19 pandemic ends, demand for oil may eventually surge faster than supply, leading to a price spike. In this scenario, bad projects become profitable again. This is ExxonMobil’s plan, at least.

With such a price spike, the next phase of expansion could be explosive. With an eye towards export, made possible by the 2015 lifting of the crude export ban, industry and its allies would push an historic growth of pipelines crisscrossing Texas, connecting new export terminals and petrochemical facilities that produce plastics and cause pollution that is plaguing the Texas and Lousianna coasts.

Not only would this expansion seal our climate future, but it would continue to endanger lives in communities in New Mexico, across Texas, and along the Gulf of Mexico.

Residents living near oil and gas fields would continue to struggle with increased health impacts, such as respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and dizziness, as happened in the city of Balmorhea, TX. In places like Midland and Odessa, they’d have to keep fighting skyrocketing rent and traffic fatalities. In cities like Carlsbad they will have to continue worrying about pipelines carrying potentially radioactive waste exploding on them in the middle of the night. And on the Gulf, the construction of polluting facilities would continue to exacerbate environmental racism, like the proposed Formosa Plastics facility that poses a grave threat to the health and safety of residents in already-overexposed communities in cancer alley.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinstilled in many of us a faith in science and ourselves. We better understand the interconnection of the world and the importance of swiftly addressing a crisis before it gets out of hand. We see clearly the injustice of giving corporations billions in bailouts while millions of people are out of work. We know that the actions we take today can save lives and make a difference in the world.

So, let’s move forward and not backward. Canada provides an admirable example by supporting out-of-work oil and gas workers to begin cleaning up the harmful pollution caused by this industry. The US could follow suit. Let us use this crisis as an opportunity, not to return to a failing economic model that fuels existing health and climate crises and then fails people in their time of need, but to build a better future for us all.

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