Drilling Our Way to Climate Doom

The United States is producing record amounts of oil and natural gas, despite the fact that the ongoing use of these fossil fuels poses an existential threat to the planet.

Even today, as the planet faces catastrophic warming, leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties keep pushing for more oil and natural gas production, believing that most of the world will continue to rely on these fossil fuels for decades to come.

“You can write this down, you can go to every NGO, and they’ll tell me I’m nuts, but I predict this,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum last month. “There will be more crude oil consumed 30 years from now than there is today.”

A Fossil Fuel Powerhouse

For the past decade, the United States has been a fossil fuel powerhouse. Since 2011, the United States has been the world’s top producer of natural gas, and since 2018, the United States has been the world’s top producer of oil.

The United States became a fossil fuel powerhouse by embracing hydraulic fracturing. The technique, also known as “fracking,” uses a high-powered spray of water and chemicals to break apart underground rock formations. It has enabled U.S. energy companies to gain access to previously inaccessible deposits of oil and natural gas.

Environmental groups have criticized fracking for contaminating groundwater and triggering earthquakes, leading some states to ban it.

In Washington, top officials have embraced the fracking boom. During the Obama administration, officials boasted that the United States was becoming an “energy superpower” and the “energy center of the world.” Officials in the Trump administration were even more enthusiastic, saying that they were leading the world into a new era of “energy dominance.”

Exuberance over energy dominance remains widespread in the Biden administration. Officials boast that the United States is continuing to break new records in oil and natural gas production.

“There is actually record [oil] production from the United States,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained late last year. “We’re producing more and selling more around the world than we ever have.”

The Threat to the Planet

The U.S. move to become a fossil fuel powerhouse has come with major costs to the environment. By continuing to produce oil and natural gas at record levels, the United States is leading the world into the climate crisis.

There is a direct connection between the use of fossil fuels and the warming of the planet. The burning of fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which are emitted into the atmosphere, where they have the effect of warming the planet. Climate scientists calculate that the Earth has warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late nineteenth century.

Unchecked global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. Already, people in many parts of the world are grappling with extreme weather events, including record-breaking heat, rain, droughts, floods, storms, and wildfires. This past July was the planet’s hottest month on record.

“Climate change is here,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a July 27 press conference. “It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning.”

For decades, world leaders have been familiar with the problem of human-caused climate change. Repeatedly, they have created arrangements for reducing carbon emissions, including the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the Green Climate Fund (2010), and the Paris Agreement (2015).

Under the Paris Agreement (2015), nearly every country in the world created voluntary emissions targets with the goal of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and keeping it well below 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Participants agreed to meet every five years to review their progress.

Despite these steps, the world is no closer today than it was in the early 1990s to preventing catastrophic global warming. In many ways, things are much worse, despite some progress in countries such as the United States that have shifted away from coal, a fossil fuel that generates more carbon emissions than oil or natural gas.

Not only is the world producing and consuming fossil fuels at or near record levels, but the world’s greenhouse gas emissionscontinue rising at a record pace. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of climate experts, global average temperature rise is on track to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in the early 2030s, about a decade away.

Moving Toward Climate Doom

The issue of whether the world will be able to avert climate doom will largely depend on the actions of some of the world’s most powerful countries, including China and the United States. Together, China and the United States account for nearly half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Although China is the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, largely due to its burning of coal, the United States is responsible for the largest amount of historical emissions and remains the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

“We have a responsibility, a major responsibility, around this climate issue, for two reasons,” Blinken explained last year. “First of all, today we are unfortunately the number two emitter in the world after China.” And second, “what we did for our own development, we did things that we are asking other countries not to do today,” such as use coal.

Officials in Washington have been slow to take responsibility, however. Leaders in both political parties continue to prioritize U.S. dominance in oil and natural gas over a global just transition to clean energy. The Biden administration has set a goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to half of the country’s 2005 levels by 2030, but the country is not on track to meet the administration’s target.

Republican leaders have largely dismissed the climate threat, falsely claiming that climate science is unclear and inconclusive. Republicans are organizing around Project 2025, a plan to increase drilling and eliminate environmental protections.

Natural gas is going to be “the most important energy resource for the next 40 years,” Pompeo said at last month’s event. Both oil and natural gas, he insisted, “are going to continue to be very important.”

Many U.S. officials see oil and natural gas as strategic assets. They believe that U.S. energy dominance will enable the United States to maintain influence over countries that have fewer resources, such as China.

“China has almost none of them, so we have an enormous amount of leverage with respect to that,” Pompeo said, referring to oil and natural gas.

In contrast to their Republican counterparts, Democratic leaders have been more willing to acknowledge the climate threat, sometimes describing the climate crisis as the greatest challenge of our time, but they share many of the same priorities. Not only do they view oil and natural gas as strategic assets against China, but they remain committed to increasing the production and consumption of these two fossil fuels.

For years, the Biden administration has been pushing for more oil production. Even as the administration has supported a transition to clean and sustainable energy, backing unprecedented investments in batteries and renewable energies in the Inflation Reduction Act, the administration has empowered U.S. energy companies to keep setting records in oil and gas production, leading to record profits.

“There is nothing standing in the way of domestic oil and gas production,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm commentedearlier this year.

What U.S. leaders and oil companies are doing, in short, is leading the world toward a climate catastrophe. By prioritizing fossil fuel production and great power politics over the findings of climate scientists, they are creating a future in which “we’re doomed,” as U.S. climate envoy John Kerry once put it.

“The world is not living sustainably, and if you look at history, civilizations have disappeared due to that reality,” Kerry saidearlier this year.

This first appears on FPIF.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.