Oil and Gas Emissions Are Reversing Progress from Coal’s Decline

Yves here. A particularly disheartening aspect of this story is the considerable undercounting of omissions…that companies are allowed to lie and get away with it, or alternatively, that too many of us prefer to kid ourselves.

By Naveena Sadasivam, a staff writer at Grist. Originally published at Grist

Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, a gargantuan coal plant responsible for more than 16 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, shut down in November. Its closing capped a decade in which coal generation in the United States was cut in half — a development recently credited with reducing nationwide greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent last year.

But thanks in large part to the booming oil and gas industry, that slight decline in emissions is likely just a blip on the radar. Emissions from a single proposed petrochemical complex in Louisiana’s St. James Parish, for example, would replace the lion’s share of the greenhouse gas pollution prevented through closing the Navajo Generating Station. Once built, the $9.4 billion Formosa plastics plant is expected to release more than 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.

The St. James facility is just one of dozens of new polluting plants expected to contribute to ballooning emissions from the U.S. oil and gas industry in the coming years. According to a new report published Wednesday by the Environmental Integrity Project, or EIP, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., the industry is slated to pump an additional 227 million tons of planet-warming gases into the atmosphere in 2025 — a 30 percent increase over 2018 emissions — bringing its total emissions close to one billion tons per year. That’s equivalent to the full-time greenhouse gas pollution of well over 200 major coal-fired power plants.

About 60 percent of that rise is from expanding fossil fuel drilling, new liquified natural gas plants, and other additional oil and gas infrastructure. The remaining increases in emissions are expected to come from refineries and chemical plants that process crude oil and natural gas into gasoline, plastics, fertilizers, and other products.

Those emissions “would eat up more than half of the reductions that we expect to get out of the power sector,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the EIP. “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.”

The report is based in part on historical emissions data submitted to the EPA by oil and gas producers. To estimate future emissions, the EIP used the industry’s permit applications for new facilities as well as the Energy Information Agency’s projections for future fossil fuel production.

Scientists have warned that global temperature rise must be limited to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid catastrophic damage to the planet — a target adopted by the countries signing on to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. For its part, the U.S. agreed to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. As another new report from the research firm the Rhodium Group underscores, the U.S. is nowhere close to meeting that goal. (The Trump administration has also announced that it plans to withdraw from the agreement.)

Unreported and Undercounted

As oil and gas companies run out of pipeline capacity, they’re increasingly burning off large volumes of natural gas into the air. Orjan F. Ellingvag / Corbis via Getty Images

The vast majority of new oil and gas emissions are expected to occur in states that have seen a fracking boom in the last decade, including Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. The Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico is expected to be a particularly outsized source of emissions. The oilfield has become the most productive in the world, surpassing the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia and accounting for about half of U.S. oil production.

Schaeffer said that new operations planned for the Gulf Coast — primarily in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi — will account for three-quarters of the oil and gas industry’s overall emissions growth. Emissions from liquified natural gas plants are projected to increase tenfold, with 15 of 19 new plants emitting a combined 68 million tons of new greenhouse gases per year planned for those three states.

Schaeffer cautioned that the numbers projected by the EIP are most likely underestimates. For one, the report only tallies emissions from the largest facilities that are required to secure permits under the Clean Air Act. “There are thousands of smaller [facilities] that aren’t picked up in our numbers — compressor stations, tank batteries, big storage terminals, gas processors, and so on,” Schaeffer said.

There are also signs that companies are underreporting emissions data. As oil and gas producers run out of pipeline capacity to transport fossil fuels from drilling sites to refineries and markets, they’re increasingly burning it off into the air in a process called flaring. Companies operating in the Permian Basin reported flaring about 1.37 million tons of natural gas in 2017, but independent satellite analyses by environmental groups and research firms indicate the actual number is about double that. Similarly, emissions from accidents — like the massive 2016 Aliso Canyon leak in southern California — and other malfunctions and maintenance activities are either not reported or are undercounted, the report noted.

The report recommends that the EPA and state environmental agencies strengthen pollution limits before granting permits and improve monitoring requirements to hold companies accountable. It also emphasized increasing funding for state environmental agencies so that they are able to hire staff who can enforce environmental laws.

Many states where the oil and gas boom is underway have a long record of lax enforcement. In Texas, for instance, the state environmental agency failed to penalize 97 percent of unauthorized emissions between 2011 and 2016, and Louisiana’s environmental regulator issued just $1.6 million in fines last year — its lowest level in two decades. That might be a result of dramatic cuts to these agencies’ budgets. According to a separate analysis published by the EIP in 2019, state environmental agencies in both states had their budgets slashed by 35 percent from 2008 to 2018.

“Overall state spending went up over the same period, while the environmental agency spending and staffing continue to fall,” Schaeffer said. “Those are political choices.”

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Yves – I think you mean ’emissions’, not ‘omissions’ in the first line?

    Unfortunately I think the general point is correct that there is likely to be significant undercounting of CO2 equivalent emissions from the natural gas industry in particular. Many of those frack wells will be leaking methane for decades to come.

  2. Louis Fyne

    cheap nat. gas is displacing nuclear fission. That’s net bad for the climate.

    And wind/solar won’t displace nat. gas for literally decades even using the most optimistic projections.

    Irrational fear of fission is bad for the planet—and I live 200 miles from 4 reactors, downwind from 2 in the winter, downwind from the other 2 in the summer.

    It has to be fission + wind + solar for electricity generation with natural gas relegated to heating, cooking and transportation fuel.

    Not holding my breath and not meaning to trigger anyone. as talking fission to many American environmentalists is like splitting in the wind. just being honest

      1. Math is Your Friend

        “Again, with all due respect Louis, it’s not the almost completely powerless environmentalists that killed fission.

        Please stop saying that. It isn’t fear, it’s the “big boys” in the back room looking at cost.”

        It’s fear.

        A lot of it is driven by lies coming from ‘environmentalists’, and the rest coming from ignorance.

        A large part of the cost of nuclear power comes from the attempts by the anti-nuclear crew to derail projects, starting from initial planning and approval, through into the operating phase, adding years and thus costs and uncertainties to these projects. I find interesting that the costs I have seen quoted for electricity from nuclear power in the United States are about four times what we pay for such power here, where it accounts for about 60% of our electricity. The only similar source is hydro-electric power, which is around the same price.

        The situation is further messed up by ignorant or opportunistic politicians playing to people’s fears, opposing things like the planned waste storage facility in Nevada.

        Wikipedia summarizes it fairly well. Pay particular attention to the last sentence.

        “The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, as designated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987,[2] is a proposed deep geological repository storage facility within Yucca Mountain for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste in the United States. The site is located on federal land adjacent to the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, about 80 mi (130 km) northwest of the Las Vegas Valley.

        The project was approved in 2002 by the 107th United States Congress, but federal funding for the site ended in 2011 under the Obama Administration via amendment to the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, passed on April 14, 2011 by the Republican controlled house of Representatives.[3] The project has encountered many difficulties and was highly contested by the non-local public, the Western Shoshone peoples, and many politicians.[4] The project also faces strong state and regional opposition.[5] The Government Accountability Office stated that the closure was for political, not technical or safety reasons.[6]”

        1. kimyo

          if you look at the crystal river fiasco, i think you’d be hard-pressed to blame anyone other than the ‘big boys’.


          CR-3 went offline in September 2009 for RFO-16. While the reactor was down, the old steam generators were to be replaced. There are 426 steel tendons within the concrete walls of the reactor containment dome which reinforce the dome. Plan developer Sargent & Lundy specified that 97 tendons be loosened. Progress rejected that number as excessive. The next proposal was to loosen 74 tendons, which was typical of other nuclear plants doing the procedure. According to a Progress employee, “de-tensioning the tendons is a very expensive and time-consuming effort”, so the number was further reduced to 65. Progress engaged Bechtel to provide a 3rd party review, which agreed that 65 was appropriate. However, when the work was performed, only 27 tendons were loosened, and a foreman and supervisor sent emails questioning the way the tendons were loosened.[9]

          When workers began to cut the access hole for the steam generators, a crack formed. That crack was repaired, but more cracks appeared. Engineers noticed that parts of the concrete had delaminated. Preliminary cost estimates for the repairs was put at between $900 million and $1.3 billion.

          In February 2013 Duke Energy announced that Crystal River would be permanently shut down and that they will recover $850 million in insurance claims.

          Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stated, “That’s a multi-billion dollar asset that had to be shut down because of improper work planning, improper understanding of how to properly do this containment retrofit”.[9]

        2. Rosario

          No, it’s cost.

          The utilities don’t care about what the fear crowd says, and they sure as hell don’t care about environmentalists. Just look up any expert witness working for a PSC and talk to them about it. Cost is the utilities bottom line. I was at a PE class this past year on distributed energy resources, and heard, ad nauseum, their bemoaning alt. energy development via distributed resources because it was cost ineffective (no mention of the externalized ecological costs of fossil fuel use but whatever). Everything is cost, cost, cost, and if they can find a way to sideline environmental concerns to reduce cost they absolutely will.

          Just this past 10 years alone three US nuclear projects slated for commissioning before 2024 went belly up because of costs (the big one being SC’s V.C. Summer expansion project). This is with a full understanding of the risk of nuclear as well as the tangled ball of yarn that is nuclear regulation (which I 100% support), so if fear is such a deterrent it is not sinking in with the utilities very well. I should add that these projects were pushed by old school nuclear energy supporters. They are about the only people that can manage to convince anyone it is still worth pursuing despite all of them being money pits. Take a look at this list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cancelled_nuclear_reactors_in_the_United_States. The trend is pretty clear when you look at the dates. By the late 70s the hype died down and the financials started trickling in. That’s when the herd moved on, and for a valid reason I think.

          From all the energy conferences I’ve been to the only people I hear lauding the nuclear route are the people who used to have significant professional roles in the industry, and when I press them on the cost issue, which they universally acknowledge as a major problem with nuclear, they inevitably go the route of “but if we didn’t have all the regulations/safety requirements/decommissioning costs/etc.” That’s where they lose me.

          Regulations are built on a mountain of gore and bones (cancer in the case of nuclear), and if the energy production method can’t hack it then that’s just too bad. We’ll need to figure out a different route, and fortunately other routes exist.

          1. Odysseus

            We’re not seeing justifications of why nuclear power plants have cost overruns, nor are we seeing penalty clauses for cost overruns written into the contracts.

            It’s absolute nonsense to claim that we are unable to do something today that we definitely were able to do 40 years ago. Get your shit together, and lay pipe and pour concrete on time and on budget.

          2. pat b

            > By the late 70s the hype died down and the financials started trickling in

            After WPPPS defaulted, nuclear lost investment.

            this year is the last year coal projects are investable by any bank.
            in 3 years gas/oil will be the same way

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Fission reactors are not compatible with renewables for addressing demand in most grids (excepting hydro and CSP where available).

      Fission is good at providing base demand – nothing else. To run a typical grid you need power for base demand, plus power for daily, weekly and annual peaks and surges. Nuclear can only supply all that power if you match it with gas (which provides more dischargeable power) or… yes, lots of storage. You could theoretically massively overbuild nuclear capacity for maximum predictable peak demand, but that would be extremely expensive and create all sorts of issues with surplus power in the grid.

      Renewables can provide all the power we need, but like fission, they cannot provide economic dispatchable power, or power suitable for consistently reliable demand over and above the base demand. It must therefore be matched with gas or energy storage.

      So a simplified model for a typical grid using no coal or oil for electricity generation (assuming minimal hydro availability) is:

      Fission + natural gas and/or energy storage


      Renewables + natural gas and/or energy storage.

      Nothing else provides 24/7 on-demand electrical power and works economically.

      In most national grid scenarios, renewables are cheaper, their cost curves are continuously declining in contrast to nuclear, and more importantly have been shown to be more resilient in the face of natural disasters.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        You said, “Fission is good at providing base demand – nothing else.

        That’s not true. Nuclear power stations are quite capable of running in load-following mode, especially if they’re designed that way. This is how France generates 75% of its power with nuclear.

        But you’re probably correct in stating that we wouldn’t want to run our grid exclusively with nuclear. For improved flexibility (and for reduced thermal cycles on the nuclear equipment), we’d probably want some storage on the grid also. But only enough to handle intra-day swings. Maybe 10% of grid capacity for three hours. This is much less storage than you’d need for a renewables-based grid, where the storage systems might have to provide 90% of grid capacity over several days of unfavorable weather. [Why not 100%? Hydro.] It’s easily a 100-to-1 ratio.

        Gail Tverberg summarized it well: “Even if wind turbines and solar PV could be built at zero cost, it would not make sense to continue to add them to the electric grid in the absence of very much better and cheaper electricity storage than we have today.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Nuclear power plants can load follow, but they don’t at any significant scale in reality. Because constructing so much excess capacity makes no economic sense. Nobody has attempted it at scale, including the French.

          France is actually an excellent example of why a heavy dependency on nuclear is such a bad idea. It can only maintain its current high level through very heavy investment in trans-frontier imports and exports. France has always had enormous problems with balancing its loads – its even now investigating connections with Ireland to import surplus power and is highly dependent on surplus Spanish power during the summer and in German, UK and other markets for exporting its huge off-peak surpluses. It has a particular problem during dry summers when inland nuke stations sometimes have to simultaneously shut down through the lack of cooling waters.

          In any event, France is reconsidering its entire policy as the EPR is a disaster. The French are in a huge bind as to how to replace their aging reactors.

          Gail Tverbergs comment is just as applicable to nuclear. Nuclear has (drought and shutdowns from earthquakes or jellyfish attack notwithstanding) less dependency on storage or backup than most renewables (depending on the mix), but it still needs storage and redundancy at a very large scale, its simply wrong to suggest otherwise.

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Nuclear doesn’t need any more storage or backup than coal needs. Back in the late 1990s, coal and nuclear provided over 75% of US electricity. Natural gas, hydro, and pumped storage handled the rest and dealt with the demand variations. If we replaced all of that coal with with nuclear so that it provided 75%, the storage requirements would be exactly the same. If we added another 300 GWh of storage or so, we could push the nuclear percentage higher and phase out gas entirely.

            The situation is not the same for renewables. I’ve seen multiple studies that put the storage requirements for a 100% renewable grid above 100 TWh. [Yes, that’s TWh, not GWh.] Nearly 3 orders of magnitude higher. It’s a show-stopper.

            And yes, the French have had some trouble with their nuclear station during hot weather. That was a consequence of their decision to use rivers for heat rejection at several sites instead of evaporative cooling towers. And yes, they’ve relied on electricity imports and exports to stabilize things. But so has Germany with their renewables-based Energiewende. Their exports were so large (and disruptively variable) that that their neighbors filed suit with the EU, and Germany let most of their feed-in tariffs lapse. Their rate of deployment of renewable power generation assets has dropped significantly. And note: German electricity is more than 1.5X as expensive as France’s, and each German kWh is accompanied by twice as much CO2.

            1. Synoia

              Works well until decommissioning the French reactors. Where do they store the waste?

              Many of the french nuclear reactors must be approaching end-of-life.

            2. PlutoniumKun

              Your first line is simply incorrect. Ireland (which has particular problems as a small isolated grid) opted for coal over nuclear in the 1980’s for precisely the reason that coal required less backup and redundancy than nuclear. Coal thermal stations are far cheaper to build (hence you can build more back up capacity) and their downtimes are more predictable and can be phased in, in a manner you can’t do with nuclear plants. In almost all respects coal/heavy oil thermal plants (both new and semi-mothballed) have greater in-built flexibility for grids than nuclear, this is well known in the industry and is the prime reason small grid countries have tended to opt for coal.

              Germany has particular issues because of a failure to integrate their northern and southern grids, which was exacerbated by the geographical spread of its renewable mix – in addition to poor integration with the former East Germany. Germany has a regional based electrical grid structure which has always proven problematic, the country has historically always underinvested in its grid for a number of reasons (mostly political), this problem goes back decades. Germany’s particular renewable mix made the problem worse, but it didn’t create the problems.

              And yes, building in storage for renewables is expensive – every option is expensive. But the price of energy storage is falling precipitously year by year – something you can’t say for the alternatives. And even at a maximum conceivable roll-out of renewables such a huge amount of storage would not be needed for several decades for a simple reason – the existing gas and coal plants would still be in existence and could be used as emergency back-up. The type of study you are quoting use ‘all or nothing’ assumptions which are not applicable to real world energy transitions (not least alternative options, such as more inter-grid connectivity and using differential pricing to ease out imbalances).

              Another key advantage renewables have is that they can be generally built very fast, and so can be part of phased mothballing of existing capacity. Nobody sensible is taking about closing down every existing thermal plant and replacing them immediately. Existing gas and coal plants an be used to take the slack in the system for decades to come until there is sufficient energy storage capacity to ensure they can be finally closed down.

              I’m not suggesting nuclear has no role whatever – I’m not fundamentally anti-nuclear. But the reality is that nuclear has had half a century to prove its a safe and economically viable alternative, but design after design has proven problematic and costs are going up, not down, even allowing for the inevitable dodgy accountancy that seems a universal to the industry. Every single major reactor design has issues, and that’s even before we get to the problems of waste treatment and disposal and its enormous costs and issues such as bottlenecks in reactor construction and uranium supply. The proof to me is China – the perfect country for a massive expansion of nuclear. Yet despite grand plans announced every five years for the past five decades they never seem to commit to one design for a large scale roll out – the core reason for me must be economic and technical, because they sure as hell don’t care about the safety or environmental aspects. The Koreans and Japanese have also stalled their own plans, and neither country is known for caring particularly much what its public thinks if the establishment decides on what is good for them. The nuclear industry loves to blame environmentalists and public opinion for its woes, but this doesn’t stand up to any kind of rational assessment – its problems are entirely of its own making, its reliance on poor designs and brute force engineering and its unholy alliance with the nuclear arms industry (which originally drove the reliance on light water reactor designs) has prevented it over decades from building truly safe and economic reactors.

        2. pat b

          of course keeping around a little bit of fossil energy production lets you get to 80% easy.

          I figure even incompetent engineers can figure out what to do once they are at 80%

  3. bondsofsteel

    It seems no one cares about this stuff. From a couple weeks ago:

    A natural gas blowout in Ohio released more methane than many countries do in an entire year

    Exxon leaks a ton of gas. It gets reported as nothing special. Satellites discover it’s a huge leak. Exxon then apologizes. Everyone moves on.

    Rinse. Repeat.

  4. JE

    Anecdotally I just drove across a substantial portion of Wyoming and witnessed large and numerous flares of “excess” natural gas at various fossil fuel production and processing facilities. It would seem that there are better ways to use such excess and that regulation would be a suitable method to curb this convenience. Another example of how we are not paying the true costs of living in this world, a tragedy of the commons writ large.

  5. Synoia

    If one accepts that our civilization is the “heat engne” driving climate change, then what does a sustainable world look like?

    16th or 17th Century? It must be somewhere there because that’s approximately when the British invented the industrial revolution, part of which involved coal mining because they exhausted the available wood fuel smelting Iron.

    Is that the correct target level for post Climate Change Mitigation? If so what the path from here to there? Does it include reverting to those population levels?

    My dark (or gloomy) side says yes, and the change will not be a managed change.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      We desire vast amounts of electricity. Renewables can only ever supply half-vast amounts of electricity.
      Renewables can only ever be a half-vast solution to what is currently a vast problem.

      But if we could reduce our desire for electricity to half of what we desire now, we would be reducing our desire from vast to half-vast. That would shrink the problem from a vast problem to a half-vast problem.
      And even if renewables could only ever be a half-vast solution, if we shrank the vast problem down to a half-vast problem, the half-vast solution which renewables offers would be good enough.

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