By - Jim Vess

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell in 2019, but face a future bump from oil and gas

Energize Weekly, January 15, 2020

The burgeoning U.S. oil and gas and petrochemical sectors are set to add greenhouse gas emissions over the next five years – even as they decline for the power sector, according to two analysis of the country’s emissions.

In 2019, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 2.1 percent, a decline almost entirely due to a record 18 percent drop in coal consumption, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group. Coal demand was at its lowest level since 1975.

As the utility industry shifted to natural gas generation, some of the drop in coal emissions was offset, but power sector emissions still dropped overall by nearly 10 percent.

The performance of other sectors and the prospects for the future are more problematic, according to Rhodium and a second study by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

In 2019, the other economic sectors showed far less progress in curtailing emissions. Transportation emissions were down 0.3 percent over 2018 emissions, but industrial emissions were up 0.6 percent. Direct emissions from buildings rose 2.2 percent, and emissions from sectors including agriculture, land use and waste were up 4.4 percent.

At 5,783 million metric tons, 2019’s U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were up slightly from 2016 and were about 12 percent below 2005 levels.

Rhodium said the U.S. is at risk of missing its Copenhagen Accord target of a 17 percent reduction by 2020 and the Paris Agreement target of 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

That will be made all the more difficult by a projected boom in oil and gas activity and a surge in emissions from those sectors, according to the EIP.

The two sectors reported emitting 764 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases in 2018, an 8 percent increase since 2016. Projected growth in oil and gas production and new chemicals plants could add another 227 million tons of emissions by 2025, based on federal data.

That would bring total emissions close to one billion tons annually, equal to the greenhouse gas output from 218 large, coal-fired power plants, according to the report.

The EIP’s projections were made using the maximum allowable emissions under the permits issued or requested for new facilities between 2012 and November 2019 under the federal Clean Air Act.

Oil production is projected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to increase 31 percent between 2018 and 2025, and natural gas production to rise 24 percent during the same period.

Production and emissions are focused in shale basins centered in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. The Permian Basin in Southeast New Mexico and West Texas is now the world’s most productive oil field, with an output of more than 4.3 million barrels per day on average in 2019, accounting for about 50 percent of U.S. oil production.

In 2018, the oil and gas industry accounted for 349 million tons of emissions, a 13 percent increase over two years.

Among the actions driving a projected increase in emissions are:

  • Plans by liquefied natural gas (LNG) companies for 18 new export terminals which could add 80 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, LNG terminals accounted for just 7.4 million tons of emissions.
  • Permits for 15 new refineries, which could add 12.8 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. Between 2016 and 2018, annual refinery emissions remained relatively flat at about 205 million tons.
  • Permits issued or requested for 37 petrochemical or plastics projects that could add another 63.5 million tons of emissions annually. Between 2016 and 2018, emissions from the sector rose 8 percent to 209.2 million tons.

“The U.S. is already struggling to meet climate commitments and transition to a low-carbon future,” the report contends. “The industries responsible for driving fossil fuel extraction and production need to be held more fully accountable for their actions and the consequences of those actions.”

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