Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

How a Domestic Drilling Boom Could Lead to a Global Climate Bust

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Snow falls on flowers in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan on October 29, 2011 in New York City. In the past 135 years there have been just three days of measurable snowfall in October in New York City's Central Park.

This week the International Energy Agency (IEA) released their annual ‘World Energy Outlook,’ and it’s getting a lot of attention for its predictions that the U.S. will soon outpace Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil.

That’s projected to happen by 2020, according to the report, thanks to a hydraulic fracturing-led boom in domestic drilling. Reserves of oil and gas in the U.S. and Canada once considered impossible to reach are now just a frack job away. But there’s a downside to this boom that hasn’t garnered much attention in the coverage of the report: climate change could be exacerbated as a result.

“The world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path,” the report says. The IEA says that factoring in emissions from new energy development will lead to a “long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius.” That’s largely due to the fact that increased drilling will meet new demand in China, India and the Middle East. As natural gas replaces coal in the U.S., that coal is being shipped to Europe, where gas is expensive. The fossil fuel industry enjoyed $523 billion in subsidies last year, the report says, more than six times the amount offered to renewables. The deck appears stacked in favor of continued reliance on fossil fuels. 

The report offers a way to offset the emissions from increased demand and drilling: efficiency. It lauds the U.S. for recent fuel efficiency standards passed by President Barack Obama; the European Union has pledged to cut 20 percent of its energy demand by 2020; and Japan has committed to a ten percent reduction by 2030. But the report says this isn’t enough.

While vehicles have been the focus of improving efficiency, “four-fifths of the potential in the buildings sector and more than half in industry still remains untapped,” the report says.

If the world got its efficiency act together, the climate prediction looks much brighter. It would halve the expected increase in energy demand, reducing the need for for new fossil fuel development. “Oil demand would peak just before 2020 and would be almost 13 million barrels of oil a day lower by 2035, a reduction equal to the current production of Russia and Norway combined,” the report says.

And these efficiency upgrades can actually generate money for the global economy. “The accrued resources would facilitate a gradual reorientation of the global economy, boosting cumulative economic output to 2035 by $18 trillion, with the biggest gross domestic product (GDP) gains in India, China, the United States and Europe.” Air quality would be improved, and energy-related carbon emissions would peak before 2020,  the report says, “with a decline thereafter consistent with a long-term temperature increase of 3 °C.”

If this doesn’t happen? Well, there’s only so much carbon we can get away with sending into the atmosphere, the report says, and much of it is already spoken for. Four-Fifths of the allowable carbon emissions by 2035 “are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc.,” the report says. “If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.”

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon recently told StateImpact Texas that the long march towards a warmer climate in the state stands to have a negative impact.

“There are other parts of the environment that can’t acclimate,” says Neilsen-Gammon. “For example, the steadily increasing rate of evaporation from lakes and rivers has an impact on water supply. The warmer and drier conditions during the summer has an impact on plants.”


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