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The Oil and Gas Industry’s Dangerous Answer to Climate Change

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, May 2019.

No one is immune to the effects of the climate crisis—not even those responsible for its causes. Rising sea levels, record heat, unprecedented extreme weather disasters, and increasingly unstable environmental conditions are making it costlier and more difficult for oil and gas companies to operate in environments that their own destructive practices have altered. The same ecological fallout that hurts communities is hitting the industry’s bottom lines.

Nevertheless, the industry continues to fund climate science denial, initiate new destruction, and lobby to entrench the status quo. For example, in response to litigation from the oil and gas lobby, the Biden administration announced last week that it would resume the sale of new drilling leases on federal public lands. The administration had previously issued an executive order to pause the sales—a commonsense first step toward reforming a system that the Government Accountability Office considers “high risk.” The pause aimed to benefit taxpayers and communities already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change. Despite its reportedly mild to nonexistent impact on the industry’s operations, these companies filed suit to block this measure from going into effect.

However, the same oil and gas companies that are using such tactics to block energy reform are swift to acknowledge and mitigate the impacts of climate change when it threatens their operations. Even as the oil lobby impedes the overall population’s transition to a clean economy, companies are resorting to increasingly expensive and counterproductive ways to continue drilling amid the disastrous consequences of their own excesses. From artificial chillers refreezing a melting Arctic to taxpayer-funded seawalls protecting oil refineries on the Gulf Coast, this column covers examples of the fossil fuel industry’s extreme measures to insulate itself from the repercussions of its actions, often with government approval and support. These are reminders that the United States must address the root cause of climate change rather than continue to treat the symptoms.

The oil lobby’s answer to a melting Arctic: Refreeze the areas it wants to continue drilling

Nowhere is the oil industry’s misguided commitment to drilling clearer than in the Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the global average. These increasing temperatures reduce the efficiency of oil machinery designed to operate under frigid conditions. New construction must contend with a truncated calendar due to the shortening of the frozen season during which companies can use ice roads and bridges to move crews and materials. Projects are taking more years—and dollars—to complete. For example, Hilcorp, a private oil exploration and production company, had to double time estimates for its rejected offshore Liberty Project due to “historically abnormal ice conditions” in the Beaufort Sea. The company had intended to use sea ice, whose average seasonal duration has shrunk by almost two months since the 1970s.

Onshore, the logistics are even more precarious as rising temperatures cause permafrost—ground that should remain frozen year-round—to thaw. This not only threatens to exponentially worsen climate change by releasing the enormous amounts of carbon and methane sequestered in the region’s permafrost but also hollows out the land, leaving behind terrain that is unstable and unsuitable for construction. Homes and structures in parts of Alaska are failing due to this shift underfoot. Some of the supports that hold oil pipelines above the ground are starting to buckle, threatening collapse and spillage.

In response, oil companies are installing artificial “chillers” to manipulate the temperature around rigs and pipelines. Arctic communities have long used chilling tools such as thermopiles and thermosiphons to safeguard their houses, but climate change is causing a spike in demand, including from energy companies. For example, the Alyeska consortium—the major oil companies that own and operate the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System—is installing chillers along the pipeline system. But demand is also coming from unnecessary new developments such as ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, a planned drilling operation in previously undeveloped tundra habitat that the company projects will produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day for the next 30 years. ConocoPhillips plans to use chillers to construct 495 miles of ice roads, an ice bridge over the Colville River, miles of pipelines, and several permanent gravel drilling pads, roads, and airstrips. It also plans to embed in the ground temperature-recording devices that can alert crews just as conditions are about to become conducive to construction, allowing the company to squeeze every second from the shortened frozen season.

Initially approved by the Trump administration in 2020, Willow also received the backing of the Biden administration, which defended its predecessor’s arguments in court filings. Fortunately, the courts have struck down the permits and approvals due to the federal government’s failure to assess the full impact of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, among other legal failings. In future reviews, the administration must recognize that Willow is incongruent with its own climate and conservation goals. The project is especially dangerous to local communities in Alaska, where constructing thickly dug gravel roads and drilling pads could hasten the pace of the same thaw these adaptations are meant to offset. The federal government should not force Alaskans—or the world—to bear these risks on behalf of oil executives.

The oil lobby’s answer to sea level rise: Build around it at the public’s expense

Meanwhile, sea level rise and storm surge are causing deadlier hurricanes along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. This is an urgent and existential threat not only to coastal communities but also to the region’s many oil refineries—and therefore, to the industry’s bottom line. States have given more consideration to using seawalls to defend homes and businesses from these disasters. Oil interests have lobbied in support of this solution, even seeking fast-tracked funding and explicit prioritization of their facilities as targets for seawall protections.

But seawall construction is a short-sighted and counterproductive solution—not only because it is a Band-Aid that allows companies to continue contributing to climate change but also due to its negative impact on the local environment. Seawalls speed up erosion and abrade natural barriers such as corals, harming the environments they’re designed to protect. Waves crashing into the structures gain more energy as they rush back into the ocean, leading to greater land loss at faster rates. Coastal erosion—itself an effect of climate change—is already a huge problem in Texas, where some areas are losing 18 feet of coastline per year. Building seawalls to protect polluters from the impacts of their own emissions not only worsens the problem but also damages the surrounding area’s natural defenses against those same impacts—and often at the expense of taxpayers forced to foot the bill for their own marginalization.

Such a scenario played out in 2018 while Texas was putting together funds for a $12 billion “spine” of seawalls to protect its coastlines. Oil companies successfully lobbied to secure an initial $3.9 billion toward protecting the state’s oil refineries, including facilities owned by multibillion-dollar companies such as Chevron, DuPont, Phillips 66, Saudi Aramco, TotalEnergies, and Valero Energy. The state’s U.S. senators, Ted Cruz (R) and John Cornyn (R)—both of whom have been otherwise antagonistic toward climate science and spending—lent their support to this fast-tracked funding allocation. By contrast, Houston residents had to vote to take on debt to invest $2.5 billion toward riverine flood control, dam maintenance, and other community projects necessitated by the same climate impacts.

Oil and gas companies have invested in similar self-defeating adaptations since at least as far back as 1989. Companies have been raising offshore platform decks across the Northern Hemisphere even as they supported campaigns to discredit climate science. While Hilcorp was in court fighting to expand Arctic drilling, the company’s offshore operation in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay was being hit by sea level rise. Oil companies appear content to alter their plans and degrade the environment to remain in production, but this only perpetuates an endless cycle of destruction and mitigation at the cost of nature, the climate, and communities.

What will come next: A just transition to a clean energy economy or more destruction

Climate change is wreaking havoc on landscapes and communities across the country. Other oil-producing regions are not invulnerable to changes such as those happening in the melting Arctic and the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. In California, for example, more than one-third of the state’s oil fields have been burned by historic wildfires exacerbated, in part, by their own emissions. Across the drought-stricken West, fracking operations continue to require enormous amounts of water in fast-drying landscapes that once harbored carbon-sequestering, water-replenishing wilderness. The industry’s efforts to economize water use are welcome and necessary but must not come at the expense of addressing its ongoing contributions to the very shortage with which it must now contend.

As the economic, ecological, and human costs of drilling rise, the United States must avoid shoring up false hope of the viability of the fossil fuel industry whose own actions clearly demonstrate otherwise. Taxpayer dollars should support workers and communities in the transition to a clean economy, not subsidize and ring-fence the gambles of oil executives. In order to reach President Joe Biden’s ambitious and necessary climate goals, the United States needs to end fossil fuel subsidies, divest from drilling projects that lock in future development, and take proactive climate and conservation actions to undo the damage that has already been done.

Conclusion

Oil and gas companies are well aware of the dangers of climate change. They’re using short-sighted and self-destructive fixes to stay afloat in an ecological and economic environment that should put them out of business. In evaluating future projects such as Willow and reforming the broken leasing system on public lands, the federal government must use the best available science to confront the reality of climate change. Communities should not have to shoulder costs and risks on behalf of the companies that are causing the crisis. There is an opportunity right now to end subsidies for the oil industry and instead invest resources in a just economic transition, conservation of carbon sinks, and a drastic cut in carbon emissions. The Biden administration would do well to seize this chance—for the good of future generations as well as the communities already suffering climate change’s worst impacts across the nation and the world.

Sahir Doshi is the research assistant for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Shanée Simhoni, Zainab Mirza, Alexandra Carter, Sally Hardin, Jenny Rowland-Shea, Nicole Gentile, and Jackie Quinones for their contributions to this column.