Researchers Predict Surge in Greenhouse Gases From Oil and Gas Boom

A liquefied natural gas export facility under construction near Quintana, Texas in 2018. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

(CN) – A boom in new oil and gas and petrochemical facilities on the U.S. Gulf Coast could lead to a sizable increase in climate change-causing carbon emissions, researchers at the University of Texas said in a new study.

Describing the potential increase as a “greenhouse gas mountain,” the researchers concluded that a massive oil and gas-related industrial buildout currently underway in Texas and Louisiana, along with a continued boom in the West Texas oil patch, could grow emissions by more than half a billion tons per year by 2030.

That growth, 541 million tons of new annual emissions, would be about equal to the carbon footprint of 131 coal plants, the researchers said in the study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The study echoes an environmental group’s analysis from earlier this month that suggested growing emissions from things like pipelines, refineries and petrochemical plants could offset some of the climate benefits from the nation’s fracking boom and the resulting transition away from coal in favor of natural gas.

“These sources are a pretty big mountain that policymakers and climate modelers don’t seem to be currently accounting for,” Andrew Waxman, a co-author of Tuesday’s study, said in a statement.

The University of Texas team went beyond the environmental group’s analysis, estimating emissions increases by looking at industrial projects that have been announced but haven’t yet been considered by regulators, in addition to those that have been granted permits or have at least applied.

The largest portion of the emissions growth by 2030 – 38% – would come from new petrochemical plants, the study found, with facilities designed to export liquefied natural gas to foreign countries making up 19% of the growth.

“There are changes occurring in that part of the sector that are harder to predict in some sense, but are important,” Waxman said in an interview. “The large part of that story is the falling price of natural gas means, in the petrochemical sector, it’s less expensive to use natural gas as an energy source.”

Waxman described the study as an opportunity for industry leaders and lawmakers to find ways to reduce the expected emissions growth.

“There’s an importance on focusing on this portion of the energy sector – mid and downstream,” he said. “The change in the price of natural gas has implications for both the growth of this part of the industry, but also the carbon profile of this part of the industry.”

The study cautioned that the estimates for emissions growth could vary – some planned facilities may never get built, while the ones that do could wind up spewing more pollution than expected.

Global market dynamics could play into the equation as well. The Energy Information Administration said Tuesday that while it expects U.S. oil production to continue growing over the next two years, the rate of growth of will decline in 2020 and slow more dramatically in 2021.

Still, even with those caveats, the researchers said emissions are expected to grow substantially.

“Rough sensitivity analysis around major sources of uncertainty suggests that even lower-bound estimates of the incremental emissions from the regional buildout are large,” the study read.

Asked about the study’s findings, the trade group American Petroleum Institute pointed to an industry-led program under which companies have pledged to voluntarily cut methane emissions as evidence of the sector’s commitment to reducing its environmental footprint.

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said by email Wednesday morning that the boom in new industrial projects on the Gulf Coast is being governed by “strong laws and rules” to minimize emissions.

“If not built here, they will be built in other countries with lower standards leading to a greater environmental impact,” he said.

Waxman, the University of Texas researcher, said the team that worked on this week’s study is now in the midst of a follow-up that will analyze “policy and technical solutions” that could help curb the expected rise in emissions.

“We’re now looking heavily into carbon sequestration and storage from a policy perspective,” Waxman said, referring to technology that can “capture” carbon emissions and pump them back underground to potentially avoid climate impacts.

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