As 2020 begins, the impacts of climate change have become increasingly clear around the world. The new year started amid devastating wildfires, tied to the worst droughts Australia has experienced in hundreds of years, which encircled much of the continent. So far, 29 people have been reported dead. A University of Sydney professor estimated the number of animals killed likely tops one billion.
Today’s climate impacts have been shaped heavily by actions taken during the last 10 years, particularly in the U.S., where the climate benefits of coal power plant retirements were undermined by the rise of natural gas. Global carbon emissions had leveled off in the middle of the last decade, but began to climb again in 2017, breaking records anew each year since.
Over the past decade, as the climate crisis worsened, hundreds of drilling rigs dotted both the Permian Basin’s desert expanses in Texas and the Marcellus Shale’s Appalachian hills, grinding through rock to reach oil and gas trapped in brittle shale deep underground. In that time, the U.S. smashed global records for the production of oil and gas — two of the three fossil fuels most responsible for the ongoing climate crisis.
And at the same time, the last decade’s rush to drill continued to prove spectacularly unprofitable. The year 2020 arrived amid tens of billions of dollars in new fiscal write-downs and losses for oil drillers and fracking firms. Moody’s observed that oil and gas debt defaults represented 91 percent of the country’s total corporate debt defaults during the next-to-last fiscal quarter of the decade.
As the new decade starts, it’s worth taking stock of the last decade’s rush to drill and frack for oil and gas and to consider what we now know about how the costs of climate change have begun piling up at increasing rates over the past 10 or so years.
Dirk DeTurck shows how the area in Greenbrier, Arkansas, in Faulkner County, which sits on top of the Fayetteville Shale. This shale was the center of earthquake swarms that started shortly after the fracking industry started. Credit: © 2014 Julie Dermansky
Crossing Into One-Degree Warming
The past decade was the warmest on record, according to two analyses by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that were released on January 15.
“These trends are the footprints of human activity stomping on the atmosphere,” Gavin A. Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told The New York Times. “We know that this has been driven by human activities.”
In 2017, the world on average reached one full degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of human-induced warming above pre-industrial levels, NASA reports.
The U.S. experienced its first recorded full-blown EF-3 tornado made of — and by — wildfire during 2018’s Carr fire in California. While so-called “fire whirls,” or narrow vortices, aren’t all that uncommon during wildfires, 2018’s unprecedented “firenado” was 1,000 feet wide and tossed vehicles aloft, sent a steel shipping container flying a half-mile, and killed a Redding, California, firefighter.
It was the decade when scientists discovered huge mysterious craters opening in fields of Russian and Alaskan permafrost. Researchers soon linked the craters to both a thawing Arctic and the release of methane and carbon previously locked in the frozen landscape. Amid the Arctic thaw, building foundations sank while trees and cemetery gravestones began to tilt and lean as the world’s permafrost began shedding its permanence.
The 2010s brought evidence that even familiar principles of physics can operate in unfamiliar ways in a climate-changed world. In Phoenix, Arizona, June temperatures climbed so high that commercial airplanes were grounded amid concern that their wings could not generate the lift that makes manned flight possible.
The decade also saw some of the most catastrophic storms to ever strike along the Atlantic Coast, including four of the five most damaging hurricanes in U.S. history. “For all United States hurricanes, Katrina (2005) is the costliest storm on record,” a 2018 National Hurricane Center analysis found, using inflation-adjusted figures. “Hurricane Harvey (2017) ranks second, Hurricane Maria (2017) ranks third, Hurricane Sandy (2012) ranks fourth, and Hurricane Irma (2017) ranks fifth.”
As the decade ended, the deadly Hurricane Dorian — a storm so powerful some called for the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to be extended to describe it as a “Category 6” storm — stalled over Great Abaco and Grand Bahama island with horrific consequences.
Between 1980 and 2019, climate and weather disasters wreaked billion-dollar damages 258 times in the United States, causing over $1.75 trillion in damages, NOAA reported this month. And those events are occurring more often. “2019 is the fifth consecutive year (2015-2019) in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events have impacted the United States,” the agency wrote. “Over the last 40 years (1980-2019), the years with 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events include 1998, 2008, 2011-2012, and 2015-2019.”
Fourteen million people were impacted by the Midwest’s “great flood of 2019,” as the New York Times put it in September last year. That flood besieged those along the banks of the Mississippi for an even longer duration than the 1927 floods that led to laws giving the Army Corps of Engineers flood control authority over the river.
America’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure, which in some cases sits close to homes and workplaces as this house in Hosston, Louisiana, illustrates, can complicate disaster recovery. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, for instance, investigative reports later documented hundreds of toxic spills in densely populated Houston, Texas. Credit: © 2014 Julie Dermansky
And the 2010s also brought a sharp increase in damages from smaller individual incidents, the insurance industry reports, with insurers linking that growth to the emerging impacts of a changing climate. “The data show total insured losses from natural catastrophes are up from less than $7 billion a year in the 1970s to between $29.3 billion and $143.4 billion a year from 2010 to 2018,” Reuters reported in September 2019. “In 2018, 62 percent of all natural catastrophe insurance claims came from secondary perils” like hail storms, flash floods, and wildfires, rather than “primary perils” like hurricanes and earthquakes.
Drilling and Fracking Hundreds of Thousands of New Oil and Gas Wells
This was also the decade that brought documentary viewers the first images of tap water that could be lit on fire, as Gasland, released in 2010, displayed footage from homes near gas drilling where water became so contaminated with methane and other pollutants that, far from extinguishing fire, what flowed from the faucet could ignite into one.
An oil and gas drilling wave swept across the U.S., even as the impacts of climate change were increasingly palpable and deadly. Much of the drilling frenzy was unleashed by a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that allowed oil companies to wring fossil fuels from dense shale rock underlying huge swaths of the nation.
That drilling rush not only brought contaminated drinking water supplies, it also accelerated climate change. At the start of the decade, scientists had warned of the hazards of shale gas in particular. In 2011, scientists Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea published their landmark peer-reviewed study showing that methane leaks from the natural gas industry — particularly from shale gas production — could be so severe that burning natural gas for power could be worse than burning coal.
Earthwork’s Sharon Wilson used a thermal imaging camera to document emissions from the oil and gas industry in Greeley, Colorado, in Weld County on September 14, 2014. Credit: ©2014 Julie Dermansky
In many cases, state and federal regulators nonetheless facilitated and encouraged the rush to drill. “You wouldn’t always know it, but [American energy production] went up every year I was president,” former President Barak Obama, who served from 2009 to 2017, said at an event in Houston in November last year.
The past 10 years left the U.S. pockmarked with hundreds of thousands of new oil and gas wells.
During the decade spanning 2009 to 2019, oil and gas drillers received new permits for roughly 430,000 wells nationwide, including new wells and so-called “workovers,” used to extend the life of a well, according to data from WellDatabase.com reviewed by DeSmog.
At least 42,000 of those wells were later listed as canceled or suspended and a drilling date was unavailable for many other wells, leaving their status unclear.
Drillers put drill bit to ground at roughly 245,000 new oil and gas wells nationwide between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2019, WellDatabase reports, meaning that the 2010s brought roughly a quarter million or more new oil and gas wells to the U.S. landscape.
More than 113,000 new wells targeting shale formations were drilled between 2009 and 2019 and produced oil or gas from two dozen shale regions, or “plays,” nationwide, the Welldatabase.com data shows. Detailed information was unavailable for tens of thousands of additional wells drilled over the decade.
Drillers generated over 861 billion gallons of wastewater from those shale wells drilled during the past decade, the data shows. That’s roughly enough to give every person living in the U.S. in 2009 their own 11-foot round swimming pool filled with wastewater four feet deep.
And that’s only a small slice of the oil and gas industry’s total production of toxic waste — add in the wastewater from older wells and new conventional wells and nearly a trillion gallons a year of wastewater flows from the oil and gas industry, according to a new Rolling Stone investigation, which highlights that the industry’s “brine” is not only often toxic and laden with corrosive salts but can also be radioactive.
Ray Kemble holds a jug containing contaminated water from his hometown of Dimock, Pennsylvania Kemble, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, was sued by Cabot Oil and Gas that same year for allegedly violating terms of a non-disclosure agreement related to the company’s connection to Dimock’s water contamination. Credit: ©2015 Julie Dermansky
And climate-warming methane pollution linked to all that oil and gas production soared. In a 2019 study, the researcher Robert Howarth found that methane concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere since 2008 were “rapidly rising.”
“This recent increase in methane is massive,” Howarth said in a statement accompanying his research. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player.”
A ‘Lost Decade’ for Profits from Fossil Fuels
This past decade also brought unprecedented upheaval in the economics of energy. Coal — the fossil fuel at the foundation of the industrial revolution, long regarded as dirty but cheap — was out-competed by natural gas throughout the 2010s.
In 2011, the country’s capacity to generate power from coal peaked at nearly 318 gigawatts — and then rapidly tumbled to 257 gigawatts in 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas largely displaced coal.
“The United States surpassed Russia in 2011 to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas and surpassed Saudi Arabia in 2018 to become the world’s largest producer of petroleum,” the Energy Information Administration reported in 2019. “Last year’s increase in the United States was one of the largest absolute petroleum and natural gas production increases from a single country in history.”
A wild stag in Garfield County, Colorado, shared land with the fracking industry. Credit: ©2014 Julie Dermansky
But even as drillers churned out extraordinary amounts of natural gas, driving prices to historic lows, they never figured out how to make that drilling profitable.
As DeSmog has documented, shale drillers started the decade making spectacular promises to investors — but failed on the delivery. Shale gas would be so cheap companies could make money even if gas prices plunged, analysts predicted, and others forecast that shale oil could be produced for as little as $5 a barrel.
Instead, companies racked up huge debts and massive write-downs even as production soared. A seeming paradox emerged, where debt-fueled energy companies churned out ever-growing amounts of oil and gas, but failed entirely at making their backers rich in the process, resulting in what some called the industry’s “lost decade.”
“The 2010s was a lost decade for shares of U.S. energy companies overall,” Reuters reported in December. “Volatile commodity prices amid growing supply, poor financial performance, and disfavor from some investor groups all contributed to the energy sector’s transformation from investor darling to investor outcast.”
In 2011, The New York Times highlighted warning signs inside the oil and gas sector that the economics of shale were unworkable. “‘Money is pouring in’ from investors even though shale gas is ‘inherently unprofitable,’ an analyst from PNC Wealth Management, an investment company, wrote to a contractor in a February  email. ‘Reminds you of dot-coms,’” a front-page New York Times article reported.
Model of a Chesapeake Energy drill rig in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas. Chesapeake Energy’s rise and fall was one of the most iconic energy stories of the decade. Credit: ©2013 Julie Dermansky
The end of the decade saw EQT, the nation’s largest natural gas producer, announce that their assets were worth $1.8 billion less than previously described. That was the result, the company said, of low gas prices and “changes to our development strategy.” Oil giant Chevron wrote down $11 billion in assets in December and fracking giant Schlumberger reported a $10 billion loss for 2019.
Over the same time, renewable energy began to become cost competitive — even against natural gas’s historic low prices.
That’s a shift that could have extraordinary implications for the coming years, as the most polluting energy sources are no longer also the cheapest.
In January, the Energy Information Administration reported that more than three quarters of the power capacity that companies plan to add in the U.S. this coming year will overwhelmingly come from wind and solar power. Those wind and solar projects will add over three times as much new capacity as is expected from natural gas additions. Over 70 percent of those natural gas plants are planned in the gas-producing states of Pennsylvania, Texas, California, and Louisiana, the Energy Information Administration added.
“The analysis presents compelling evidence that 2019 represents a tipping point,” the Rocky Mountain Institute concluded in reports released last September, “with the economics now favoring clean energy over nearly all new U.S. gas-fired generation.”
Shale investors aren’t the only ones who see the 2010s as a “lost decade.” Public policy debates over the past several decades were often consumed with well-funded efforts to confuse the public on climate change and to question the reliability of climate science — but now we know that even models from the 1970s proved to be astoundingly accurate, Scientific American reported in December.
The failure to look at climate change head on was acknowledged by Florida’s Republican officials in remarks that made national news last October, coming from a state where a 2015 Miami Herald investigation found state officials had been forbidden to use the term “climate change.”
“We lost a decade,” Republican state senator Tom Lee said at a hearing examining sea-level rise and other impacts that a warming climate will have on the low-lying state’s infrastructure.
As the 2020s begin, climate scientists and world experts are warning that — if there ever had been — now, there’s no time to spare.