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'Carbon bomb' projects are hurting any hope of meeting climate goals


Here's a new phrase for you - carbon bombs. An investigation by The Guardian identified nearly 200 oil and natural gas drilling projects all over the world that are worthy of such a title. These projects on their own would pump enough planet-heating gases into the atmosphere to take the planet way over the Paris climate accord's limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. And a huge chunk of these projects are in the United States.

Oliver Milman is a reporter for The Guardian who co-wrote this report. Welcome, Oliver.

OLIVER MILMAN: Hi there. Good to be with you.

FENG: So carbon bombs - that sounds terrifying. Can you tell us more about what these are?

MILMAN: Yeah. So these essentially are major oil and gas projects that are already underway in various stages of planning and execution around the world. One hundred ninety-five of them are identified in this research that we cite in our reporting. And for the purposes of the research, it identifies carbon bombs as projects that would result in at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over their lifetimes, which is a huge amount. A billion tons is about three times the annual emissions of the United Kingdom. And there's 195 of them.

FENG: Wow. Tell us more about the scale of these planned oil and gas drilling projects in the U.S. that you uncovered.

MILMAN: Yeah. So a good proportion of these projects are happening in the U.S. And indeed in some of the real kind of hotspots of drilling that we see in the U.S. already, there's going to be a kind of ramping up of oil and gas exploration and extraction. So if you think about the Permian Basin, this kind of vast geologic formation that sits under West Texas, that's going to be a huge source of new drilling. It's expected by analysts to be a record year in 2022 in terms of new drilling sites in the Permian Basin. There's also drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which kind of runs up along the Appalachians, other places along the Midwest and in the Gulf of Mexico, too. So in total, in aggregate, these projects will release 140 billion metric tons of planet-heating gases over their lifetimes unless they are curtailed in some way.

FENG: In terms of oil and gas, how does the U.S. compare to other nations in terms of new projects?

MILMAN: I mean, it's pretty sizable. It's got the most of any country. It's about a fifth of the global total. You've got dozens and dozens of new projects, big and small, around the country. What will happen in the U.S. will impact the world, and the decisions made about these projects will determine the climate for generations to come around the planet. If 140 billion metric tons of CO2 is released from the U.S., that will have global ramifications for many years to come.

FENG: The U.S. has officially rejoined the Paris climate accord, which means that we've committed to achieving net zero in all emissions by 2050. But is that even possible if these projects you're talking about go ahead?

MILMAN: These carbon bomb projects, if they go ahead, will blow the world far beyond that and indeed far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, maybe even more with all the other sources of greenhouse gas emissions that happen around the world. So there is this huge disconnect, this kind of jarring lack of alignment between what governments are promising and what industry is doing, obviously under the auspices of government regulation. So we're making a lot of promises as a planet on dealing with climate change, but in terms of the reality of what's happening, we're moving rapidly in the wrong direction.

FENG: So why is there this disconnect between what our stated goals are for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and what industry is planning?

MILMAN: So a lot of it is down to timescales. So governments can quite quickly promise to cut emissions over a long period of time, say net zero by 2050, but they're still handing out permits for drilling. And the motivations for oil and gas companies are short-term profits for shareholders.

There is also the huge political clout of the fossil fuel industry. It's very powerful in terms of its lobbying and its voice in Washington, D.C., and other global capitals. So they have a kind of tight grip over our economy and the way the world functions.

Just think about the kind of price rises in gasoline that have happened due to the Ukraine war. This is due to our dependence on fossil fuels. We're kind of closely entwined with fossil fuels, and it's actually quite difficult to wrench ourselves free from them as quickly as we need to.

FENG: That's Oliver Milman, environment reporter at The Guardian. Thank you.

MILMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.