‘This Must Not Happen’: If Unhalted, Permian Basin Fracking Will Unleash 40 Billion Tons of CO2 by 2050

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Yves here. It’s good to see US activists pushing for important climate action in our back yard, starting with further development of the Permian Basin. First, it’s a worthy target. Second, the US’ terrible climate credibility needs some bolstering, and this would be one place to start.

By Kenny Stancil, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

As activists at the COP26 summit continue to denounce the “massive” gap between wealthy governments’ lofty rhetoricand their woefully inadequate plans for addressing the climate emergency, a new analysis of projected extraction in the Permian Basin in the U.S. Southwest exposes the extent to which oil and gas executives’ refusal to keep fossil fuels in the ground puts humanity’s future in jeopardy.

“While climate science tells us that we must consume 40% less oil in 2030, Permian producers plan to grow production more than 50%.”

Released Tuesday by Oil Change International, Earthworks, and the Center for International Environmental Law, the second chapter of The Permian Basin Climate Bomb warns that if the drilling and fracking boom that has turned the Permian Basin into “the world’s single most prolific oil and gas field” over the past decade is allowed to persist unabated for the next three decades, it will generate nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide by mid-century.

Common Dreams summarized the first chapter of the six-part multimedia series—which includes an introductory video detailing how expanded fossil fuel extraction in the basin endangers vulnerable communities from New Mexico to the Gulf Coast and beyond—when it was published last month. The second installment of the report reveals the stark contrast between global climate targets and the current trajectory of oil and gas production in the Permian Basin.

“The Permian Basin has, for the past decade, been the site of an oil and gas boom of unprecedented scale,” Lorne Stockman, research co-director at Oil Change International, said in a statement. “Producers have free rein to pollute and methane is routinely released in vast quantities. Oil exports fuel Permian production growth and today they constitute around 30% of US oil production.”

“With global markets flush with Permian oil and gas, it can only be harder to steer the world’s economy toward clean energy.”

“While climate science tells us that we must consume 40% less oil in 2030, Permian producers plan to grow production more than 50%” from 2021 to 2030, said Stockman. “This must not happen.”

“If left unchecked,” the report notes, “the Permian could continue to produce huge amounts of oil, gas, and gas liquids for decades to come. With global markets flush with Permian oil and gas, it can only be harder to steer the world’s economy toward clean energy.”

According to the report, the nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide that would be emitted from burning the fossil fuels that corporate executives expect to extract from the Permian Basin by 2050 represent about 10% of the world’s remaining “carbon budget,” or the amount of pollution compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by the century’s end.

Moreover, “scientists studying methane emissions in the Permian Basin estimate that as much as 3.7% of gas production is being vented and leaked into the atmosphere,” the report notes. “At this rate, methane emissions in the Permian Basin would emit over 9.5 billion tons of COequivalent (CO2e) by 2050,” which the authors compare to “taking 50 standard mile-long trains of coal out into the desert, dumping the coal, and just burning it in a giant pile” every day from 2021 until 2050.

The good news, says the report, is that roughly 80% of the projected carbon dioxide emissions “would come from burning the liquids and gas produced from new wells that were not in production at the end of 2020. This means much of this pollution could be prevented by simply ceasing to drill new wells.”

The Biden administration, said Steven Feit, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, “must use all of the tools at its disposal to prevent the next decade in the Permian from being a repeat of the last. At a minimum, that means rejecting permits for new export facilities, petrochemical plants, and other fossil fuel infrastructure.”

The fossil fuel industry’s plan to expand oil and gas production in the Permian Basin, climate justice advocates argue, presents President Joe Biden with an opportunity to demonstrate whether his vow to tackle the climate crisis is legitimate, or just another public relations campaign.

“Unless President Biden defuses the Permian climate bomb exploding in my backyard,” said Miguel Escoto, Earthworks West Texas field advocate and an El Paso resident, “we won’t prevent catastrophic climate change or meet our national climate commitments.”

Last month, the International Energy Agency reiterated its message that there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel production, adding that the extraction and burning of dirty energy must decline this decade while the worldwide generation of clean energy must accelerate immediately.

“Much of this pollution could be prevented by simply ceasing to drill new wells.”

Just before the start of COP26, meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) lamentedthe fact that global fossil fuel use is projected to increase this decade even as annual reductions in coal, oil, and gas production are necessary to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

The planet is currently on pace for a “catastrophic” 2.7°C of heating this century, UNEP stressed, unless countries—starting with the rich polluters most responsible for exacerbating extreme weather—rapidly and drastically slash greenhouse gas emissions, ramp up the transition to renewable energy, and enact transformative political-economic changes.

Such warnings were meant to galvanize stronger climate policy, but so far, representatives from impoverished nations and activists from around the globe have condemned the ongoing conference, which is relying on under-reported emissions data and where fossil fuel lobbyists outnumber diplomats, for producing yet another round of insufficient pledges that threaten to perpetuate the status quo.

“A ‘code red,'” Escoto said, alluding to Biden’s comments following last summer’s wave of deadly extreme weather disasters, “demands emergency action, not business as usual.”

“The president can show he’s serious about climate,” Escoto added, “by declaring a climate emergency, reinstating the crude export ban, enacting the toughest possible rules to cut oil and gas methane pollution, and laying the political groundwork to end new oil and gas production.”

The second part of the series, like the first, gives viewers a chance to donate to groups fighting against the exploitation of the Permian Basin and to take action.

Specifically, it asks people to tell the Department of Interior to end new fossil fuel leases on public lands, one of Biden’s broken campaign promises that has led to a surge in drilling permits; tell Biden to stop approving permits for pipelines, export terminals, refineries, petrochemical facilities, and other oil and gas infrastructure; and tell Congress to “ban fracking nationwide, which would make a tremendous impact [on] limiting harms in the Permian.”

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  1. Francis

    40 Billion cumulative tons CO2 until 2050 ?
    That is the current emission every year, so that does not seem extraordinary to me.
    Divided by the 30 years until then, it’s about 3% of the current emissions every year.

    1. KLG

      “Extraordinary” is in the eye of the beholder. The earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.9% argon. These three gases account for >99.9% of the total. The “safe baseline” of 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 0.0035% by volume. The increase to 400+ ppm leading our way into the coming jackpot represents a 14% increase, but carbon dioxide and all the other atmosphere components–noble gases, hydrogen, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone (~0.000007% but enough to shelter us from UV radiation)–still account for only 0.04% of the total volume. A rounding error…but with dire consequences.

      I have a close friend who has said to me that he does not “believe in” anthropogenic global warming because he can’t see how humans can have such an influence on something as large as the atmosphere. This coming from a person who has seen in his lifetime the Clean Water Act result in the re-establishment of the original range of speckled trout in our local estuary (trout cannot tolerate poor water quality) and the continuing repair of the ozone hole over Antarctica as a consequence of the Montreal Protocol. And yet the paradise we call home is likely to be largely uninhabitable for his grandchildren or their children, because much of it will be underwater and the rest of it a swamp.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If your friend does not “believe in” man made global warming, then your friend should be left free to not take any personal measures to enhance his own survival chances if/when a global warming manifestation visits his own personal space. And if you are taking any such personal counter-warming survival measures yourself, don’t let him know what they are.

        If he was really your friend, he wouldn’t be part of the conspiracy to kill all life on earth, including you.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      That is just from the direct use of the gas. As the article states, the real climate change impact will be substantially greater due to fugitive methane emissions. And lets not forget the opportunity cost of the investment in gas over alternatives.

  2. Eduardo

    The Biden administration, said Steven Feit, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, “must use all of the tools at its disposal to prevent the next decade in the Permian from being a repeat of the last.

    Sorry, but those tools are busy making sure that OPEC+ produces more oil.

    The U.S. administration has been urging OPEC and its partners in OPEC+ to add more barrels to their combined output since July as recovering demand for oil products pushed prices at the pump to politically uncomfortable highs.
    Biden Threatens OPEC+ With Undisclosed “Tools”

    1. Carolinian

      Right. Here’s an interesting article about why OPEC is unlikely to comply and current oil prices are likely to stick for some time.


      It also says the frackers are going to stay in stand pat mode for the next year or so and not challenge the Saudis and the Russians.So this may contribute to a near term reduction in drilling more than a supposedly less oil friendly climate under Biden than Trump.

      Personally I’m feeling a bit smug with a newish high mileage car while my neighbors with their $45k behemoths shed wads of cash at the gas station (not that they care).

  3. Alex V

    Zero mention of cheap money enabling all of this…..And that most of this production is ultimately unprofitable.


    “Plains reported a fourth quarter net loss of $28 million (minus 11 cents/share), down from a $306 million (35 cents) net profit in 4Q2019. The company reported a full-year net loss of $2.59 billion (minus $3.83/share) for 2020, compared with net earnings of $2.171 billion ($2.65) in 2019.”


    1. PlutoniumKun

      In many ways, this is the craziest thing – fracking has almost certainly never given a decent economic rate of return to any fracker – its all due to hidden subsidies and too much money floating around.

      Past financial manias have left us networks of railway tracks and fibre optic cables and skyscrapers and maybe some nice tulips. Fracking has left nothing but devastation.

      1. Alex V

        It’s sheer insanity. The cynicism required is completely unfathomable to me.

        Piece also fails to mention all of the methane leakage.

        This is perhaps the largest and worst (in absolute terms) environmental crime in history, and everyone walks away, consequence free, and almost everyone profited. The banks, the shareholders, pension funds, even locals through drilling boom towns. Consequences are global from the carbon emissions. Groundwater could be ruined for decades, if not centuries, in Texas.

        Much worse than Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, etc… Those were neglect for profit. This was deliberate, everyone knew what the consequences are and did it anyway.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Could it be viewed as a kind of credit laundering? Or a credit bonfire?

        The credit all burns up, but the best positioned frackization-servicers get to roast their marshmallows in mid bonfire. They specifically make money by turning a lot of credit into some money for themselves.

  4. PHLDenizen

    I don’t usually quote song lyrics, but all this technocrat bullshit regarding climate change being yet another opportunity for incrementalism and scams like “carbon credits” is a pathetic, abominable response that will never get fixed.

    I’ve adopted my version of Islamic fatalism: a resigned attitude to human action and misfortune by the placement of responsibility onto fate (or God if that’s your thing). Same shit the elites believe: all their success and riches are due to pluckiness and bootstrap pulling, while all failures are wholly attributable to externalities beyond their control.

    Anyway, Toy Matinee is one of the greatest bands most people have never heard about. Some sick musicianship and songwriting. So “Last Plane Out”:

    Greetings from Sodom
    How we wish you were here
    The weather’s getting warmer
    Now that the trees are all cleared
    There’s no time for a conscience
    And we recognize no crime
    Yeah we got dogs and Valvoline
    It’s a pretty damn good time

    Men of reason, not of rhyme
    Keep the spoils and share the crime
    Goodman, Badman, lost without
    A hope for passage on the last plane out

    There was one repressed do-gooder
    And a few who still believed
    Yes I think there were five good men here yesterday
    But they were asked to leave
    So we’ve kept the good old vices
    And labored to invent a few
    With cake in vulgar surplus
    We can have it and eat it, too

    Men of reason, not of rhyme
    Keep the spoils and share your crime
    Goodman, Badman, lost without
    A hope for passage on the last plane out

    Men of reason, hide your face
    Walking backwards, plays his ace
    Goodman, Badman, lost without
    A hope for passage on the last plane out

    So here’s a concept you can’t dance to
    An idea you cannot hum
    There may not be an empty seat
    When all is said and done

    I’m not the guy who sings the hymns
    No bleeding hearts to mend
    But I like the part where Icarus
    Hijacks the little red hen

    Someone said the Big Man
    May be joining us soon
    But I never was the type to hang
    With the harbingers of doom
    And this party is addictive
    Self-destructive, no doubt
    So I hope that someone saves a seat for me
    On the last plane out

    Men of reason, not of rhyme
    Keep the spoils and share your crime
    Goodman, Badman, lost without
    A hope for passage on the last plane out

    Men of reason, hide your face
    Walking backwards, losing the race
    Goodman, Badman, lost without
    A hope for passage on the last plane out

  5. Susan the other

    Just buy it. Buy every hole in Texas and wherever the Permian extends to. Give them a good price because the US (probably the only entity with the wherewithal to conserve it) can use this resource for hundreds of years to see us through our transition. But buy it Now; including all the claims that have been proven but not yet drilled (if that is the case). Buy it all. Spend the money to cap the methane or capture it for various purposes. Prohibit flares and outright neglect. The US gov is the only entity big enough to do this. So do it Now. Control it. Ration it. And pay the wildcatters well for all their work and their expected long term profits. Just pay them. Just buy the whole damn thing. Nationalize it. And we thank the petroleum industry for finding and proving this resource. Please take your money and invest it promptly in renewables. Think very long term. And thanks again.

    1. Ben Oldfield

      A good green project for all those fracking drillers would be to drill for hot dry rocks for geothermal steam and hot water. Iceland runs it’s counrty on this and the USA has a large nunber of thermal hot spots.

      1. ocop

        As a possibly useful anecdote, a colleague that works with the DOE’s Geothermal program has been getting a surprising amount of interest from fracking engineers jumping ship. While Oil & Gas has always been a boom-bust industry production could stay depressed for a while if these folks are reading the writing on the wall correctly.

  6. dav in Austin

    So the article suggests the solution to the Permian emissions is to stop federal oil leases. The Permian is private property and there are no government oil leases.

    The problem is real but it is a world problem, not a US problem. The US will have to make some drastic changes. But if the rest of the world (barring Europe) keeps doing the hand-wave, nothing the US can do will affect the outcome.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If the US defected from the Free Trade system and rigidly re-protectionised itself, the US would reconquer for itself the sovereign economic right to ban economic relations of any and all kinds with every country which does not adopt the same total ban on fracking which the US could dare to adopt behind a Big Beautiful Wall of protection. Anyone who wanted to sell their anything in America would have to adopt the American ban on fracking.

      But we certainly can’t do that now, under the current Free Trade Occupation Regime.

  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    One way to stop all this fracking would be to win a civil war and be able to stop it by force.

    If we don’t like that way, or doubt our ability to achieve it, the only other think I can think of is for the frack-deplorers and frack-skeptics to somehow strangle down their use of frackoil and frackgas so extremely so as to destroy Fracking’s revenue streams in place, so that Fracking will starve to death and die on the vine.

    Can the frack-stoppers figure out how to do that?

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