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A gas station is pictured in front of Navajo Refining on April 23, 2020 in Artesia, New Mexico. (Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

A gas station is pictured in front of Navajo Refining on April 23, 2020 in Artesia, New Mexico. (Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

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

"Unless President Biden defuses the Permian climate bomb exploding in my backyard," said one opponent from El Paso, "we won't prevent catastrophic climate change."

Kenny Stancil

As activists at the COP26 summit continue to denounce the "massive" gap between wealthy governments' lofty rhetoric and 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) lamented the 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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