While most of the world's nations have come together in recent years to combat climate change, the United States is set to undermine their collective efforts with a massive expansion in fossil fuel production, according to a new report from the advocacy organization Oil Change International.
In signing and ratifying the Paris Agreement, over 180 countries around the world—including the U.S.—agreed to work to limit global warming to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and no more than two degrees. Research has shown that, to keep temperature increases below two degrees Celsius, the majority of fossil fuels still underground must stay there. And even two degrees of warming will be catastrophic for some parts of the world. The most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that, compared to 1.5, two degrees would leave hundreds of millions more people susceptible to poverty and would exacerbate food insecurity, water scarcity, and lead to the irreversible loss of not just species but entire ecosystems.
In order to keep temperature increases to the more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees, experts agree that global carbon dioxide emissions need to be halved by roughly 2030. But over that same time period, the U.S. is set to expand oil and gas production more than any other nation on Earth.
Between 2018 and 2050, the report finds that oil and gas development in the U.S. could lead to an additional 120 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—an amount on par with the lifetime emissions of almost 1,000 coal-fired power plants.
"It's clearer by the day that we're drilling toward a climate catastrophe," Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which endorsed the report, said in a statement. "Every new lease, permit, and subsidy granted to this dirty industry pushes us closer to disaster. America's oil and gas production is a carbon bomb we must defuse through a thoughtful phase-out and a just transition to clean energy."
U.S. production has been growing for years: Between 2010 and 2018, fossil fuel production climbed by 85 percent, the report shows, and that trend is unlikely to slow down. Already the largest oil and gas producer in the world, the U.S. could double its oil production by 2030, for example. According to the report, growth in fossil fuels in the U.S. is expected to be at least four times greater than in Canada, the country with the next-largest amount of growth. By 2030, the U.S. could account for almost 60 percent of the growth in oil and gas production around the globe.
Most of the increase will come from the Permian Basin in northwestern Texas and southeastern New Mexico—already the country's most prolific oil basin. This will have cascading effects on the region, beyond just heightened carbon emissions. Drilling in the Permian basin is water intensive, for example. Between 2011 and 2016, the water use per well in the basin increased from an average of 1.3 million gallons to 11 million gallons. In the Appalachian Basin, located in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, gas production has increased sharply—growing from three billion cubic feet per day in 2010 to 28 billion last year, and it's not expected to slow down. Production there could reach 40 billion cubic feet per day by 2025.
Because we all share a single planet and atmosphere, and thus a single carbon budget, the expansion will put the rest of the world in a tough position. "The United States would be pushing the burden of phasing out oil and gas onto other countries," the report authors write, "forcing them into a potentially impossible choice: shut down their production at a pace that could cause domestic economic or social chaos, or allow the United States to push the world over the brink of climate chaos."
But a just and managed phase-out of fossil fuels is still possible—and the U.S. is in a good position to lead the way. The country has a relatively healthy and diverse economy: The fossil fuel industry accounts for just 1.4 percent of the U.S.'s gross domestic product, and only 0.3 percent of the labor force is involved in extraction. Plus, the markets have shifted: It's now cheaper to build new wind and solar operations than to operate existing coal-fired power plants, according to the report. The authors cite a 2015 study showing that policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. could add more than 550,000 jobs per year to the U.S. economy between 2016 and 2050 in energy efficiency, electric car manufacture, and other renewable industries—and pass along savings to families through lower electricity and heating bills and lower transportation costs.
Of course, a just transition means protecting the rights and well-being of fossil fuel-dependent workers and regions. That means setting aside funds for support, retraining, relocation, and pensions—costs which could top $600 million a year over 20 years, according to a recent study from the Political Economy Research Institute.
A 2018 report from Oil Change International on phasing out oil production in California—one of the most prolific oil states in the country, and the only major oil-producing state without a production fee on the fossil fuel—found that adding a 5 to 10 percent tax on oil production, or what the authors call a "Just Transition Fee," could create enough revenue to cover five years of wages for industry workers, plus four years of college tuition, and still have $2 billion left over.
The fossil fuel industry continues to thrive in part because of massive subsidies from the federal government—some $20 billion a year—funds that could also be redirected toward retraining programs or other financial support for workers as the country transitions away from fossil fuels.
Whatever the cost of a just transition, the authors write, it "pales in comparison to the mounting costs of climate change in the United States." The costs of weather- and climate-related disasters in the U.S. in 2017 topped $306 billion, a new record. In 2018, there were a dozen weather-related disasters that cost at least $1 billion each.