By Nina Lakhani and Oliver Milman
The fate of the vast quantities of oil and gas lodged under the shale, mud and sandstone of American drilling fields will in large part determine whether the world retains a liveable climate. And the US, the world’s largest extractor of oil, is poised to unleash these fossil fuels in spectacular volumes.
Planned drilling projects across US land and waters will release 140bn metric tons of planet-heating gases if fully realised, an analysis shared with the Guardian has found.
The study, to be published in the Energy Policy journal this month, found emissions from these oil and gas “carbon bomb” projects were four times larger than all of the planet-heating gases expelled globally each year, placing the world on track for disastrous climate change.
The plans include conventional drilling and fracking spanning the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the foothills of the Front Range in Colorado and the mountainous Appalachian region. But the heart is the Permian basin, a geological formation 250 miles wide that sits under the mostly flat terrain of west Texas and New Mexico.
One lobe of this formation, known as the Delaware basin, is predicted to emit 27.8bn metric tons of carbon during the lifetime of planned drilling, while another, known as the Midland basin, will potentially unleash 16.6bn tons of emissions.
It means the US, the centre of the world’s addiction to oil and gas, will play an outsized role in the heatwaves, droughts and floods that will impact people around the planet.
“The Permian is where a lot of the shale upstream investment will go and companies are getting better and better at extracting oil from there,” said Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “In an environment where it is profitable and where there is a market for oil, it is hard to think there won’t be drilling there for decades to come.”
There is significant political pressure to increase domestic drilling in response to the Russia-Ukraine war, which has caused global oil prices to soar and the US to ban Russian oil imports. Large oil companies are considering an expansion in drilling should the high oil price linger.
“We are wholly dependent upon oil and the crisis in Ukraine shows us that dependency is freighted with many costs, including national security,” Ori said. “We can’t drill our way out of this problem. It’s been a good reminder that we are the world’s top oil producer and that still has not insulated us from this crisis.
“We have an oil-based system, so to change that we need to reduce the demand for oil. Europe is moving forward with targets on clean energy, and hopefully this crisis will give a big push to that in the US too.”