Oil and gas development continued to expand dramatically during the second year of the Trump presidency. Experts warn that the administration’s “energy dominance” agenda will have terrible consequences for the climate and the planet, and all that drilling will not get the country any closer to energy independence.
Despite low oil prices, crude oil production in the United States soared from 9.995 million barrels a day in January 2018 to 11.9 million barrels in November, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Over the same period, natural gas production shot up from 95,426 million cubic feet per day to 107,429 cubic feet per day.
“Given the sequence of scientific climate reports and climate-linked natural disasters, this is definitely Nero drilling while Rome burns,” says environmental activist Bill McKibben. “History will wonder what we were thinking — or if we were.”
This expansion in production occurred during a period of relatively low prices for West Texas Intermediate crude, which kept oil operators from establishing as many new rigs as they did in 2017. In a recent press release, S&P Global Platts Analytics senior analyst Trey Cowan projected that the rig count would soon rebound due to rising prices for crude oil. “If WTI crude stays in the mid-$50/b area, we would expect the rig count to follow suit and show improvement in the weeks ahead,” he said. West Texas Intermediate crude, often used as a benchmark for oil pricing, was $57.01 a barrel as of Feb. 28.
Credit: John Ciccarelli, Bureau of Land Management
Indeed oil and gas companies are already preparing for future production and filed for a record 6,570 new permits last month, the highest number in five years, according to data from investment banking advisory firm Evercore ISI, which also reported that an additional 1,140 U.S. onshore permits were filed during the first week of February.
More than two-third of January’s permits — 4,200 — were filed in oil-rich Wyoming. “The operators there are getting into a war with each other over who’s going to control the Powder River Basin,” says Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for Western Watersheds Project. “They don’t necessarily expect to drill all these sites, but they want to get so many permit requests in there so other companies don’t get processed in time. The state oil and gas commission doesn’t have the capacity to deal with what’s going on.” A recent report by Heather Richards of the Casper Star Tribune found the commission is dealing with a backlog of 25,000 permitting requests from contentious companies trying to either secure guaranteed drilling rights or boost their on-paper assets.
All of this drilling and fossil-fuel production poses a major threat to the climate. “At a time when we need to be reducing global carbon emissions at close to 10 percent a year to avert dangerous planetary warming, any increases at all in oil and natural gas production are a threat to those efforts,” says noted climate scientist Michael E. Mann.
The expansion may be even worse than usual for the climate because of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. “Under the current administration there’s been a major rollback in oversight of the oil and gas sector, especially methane emissions, leakage, venting and flaring,” says Julie McNamara, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Natural gas contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Worryingly, the rush to drill also positions the country for long-term oil and gas use rather than a transition to renewables.
“The infrastructure lock-in that comes from this developments puts us on a course that we won’t soon be able to shake,” says McNamara. “One you build something, it’s very hard to move away from it. The outcome from this will be either a massive amount of stranded assets or it will be something where we’ll just keep burning fossil fuels because the infrastructure is already built. It makes the pivot to clean energy all that much harder.”
Is there any way to slow down or stop this oil and gas development? Fuller suggests there are two ways to approach this.
“First,” she says, “we need all of the policy changes and incentives — the ‘carrots’ that people are talking about — to make sure that we transition the economy to a renewable energy economy.”
Second, people and organizations can stand up to this new wave of drilling. “We need as many people as possible pushing back on these drilling permits and leases,” she says. “This year conservation groups have put in comments on more than 1,000 drilling permit applications and site inspection requests. Even if the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t solicit public comments, they have to consider them if they receive them.”
Even individuals can do that, she points out. “There’s definitely a role for the public to play,” Fuller says. “Everyday people can learn how to write comments and submit them.” A good model for accomplishing that, she adds, is an activist toolbox for commenting on oil and gas projects, which was developed by the organization Rocky Mountain Wild. She points out that two recent lease projects in New Mexico and Montana were deferred after the public mobilized against them.
“Lease sale deferrals are not permanent,” she adds, “but they can last for a while — and while the land is deferred it’s safe from drilling and fracking. During that time, the public has the ability to ask the Department of the Interior for a permanent withdrawal from leasing or to ask members of Congress to permanently protect the land with legislation.”
Ultimately, the experts point out, the most effective way to defer future lease sales and drilling is to decarbonize the economy.
“The only thing that will move us to true energy independence will be the conversion to renewable energy,” Fuller says.