The Latest Texas Oil Boom Has Sent Emissions Soaring

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By Nick Cunningham

The ongoing growth of fracking in the U.S., plus the related buildout of pipelines, refineries and petrochemical plants, will release the equivalent of 50 new coal-fired power plants over the next five years.

An estimated 157 new or expanded plants are slated to come online in that timeframe, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). Those plants are expected to release 227 million tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, a 30 percent increase from the industry’s 2018 emissions total.

“The US is already struggling to meet climate commitments and transition to a low-carbon future,” said Courtney Bernhardt, Research Director at the Environmental Integrity Project. “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.”

Roughly 36 million tons of the 227-million-ton total will come from expanded drilling. But that means that more than 80 percent of the additional emissions comes from all the associated midstream and downstream facilities.

About half of the 157 new facilities are to be built in Texas and Louisiana. This isn’t just a matter of greenhouse gas emissions, but also of harmful pollutants that affect public health. For instance, the planned facilities will emit 119,000 tons of volatile organic compounds each year, which will exacerbate smog, as well as 11,100 tons of fine particles that contribute to asthma and heart attacks.

One of the largest sources of new emissions could come from the massive $9.4-billion Formosa chemical and plastics plant to be built in Louisiana, a plant that will dramatically increase the amount of toxic chemicals released in the region’s “Cancer Alley.” That plant has faced stiffed resistance, but recently received crucial state permits, inching the project forward.

 

The tidal wave of investment in petrochemical plants to produce plastics is the next chapter of the fracking boom. Enormous supplies of natural gas and natural gas liquids, which have crashed prices, are set to be transformed into plastics. Shell’s gargantuan ethane cracker in Western Pennsylvania is one example, but the Gulf Coast is home to many more planned ethane crackers and related petrochemical sites, taking advantage of the huge volumes of oil and gas flowing from the Permian and Eagle Ford. Globally, the oil and gas industry is expected to invest $1.4 trillion in new projects around the world over the next five years, although the bulk of that will flow into U.S. shale. “U.S. oil and gas expansion by itself will make it virtually impossible for the rest of the world to manage the safe, equitable and necessary phase-out of oil and gas production by 2050,” a December 2019 report published by a broad coalition of environmental groups said.

In a separate report that looked at all emissions, the Rhodium Group estimates that total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by 2.1 percent in 2019, largely the result of the 18 percent decline in coal-fired generation. The increase in gas-fired generation offset some of that improvement, but power sector emissions overall declined by 10 percent. Transportation emissions were flat, but emissions from industry and buildings rose.

Still, U.S. emissions grew prior to 2019, so there has been no net reduction in the past three years, leaving the U.S. behind on its relatively modest climate targets. As part of the Copenhagen commitment, the U.S. pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

The year has arrived and the U.S. has only cut by 12.3 percent. Achieving the Copenhagen goal by the end of this year will require another 5.3 percent reduction in emissions, “a bigger annual drop than the US has experienced during the post-war period, with the exception of 2009 due to the Great Recession,” the Rhodium Group concluded.

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