In the same month that Greta Thunberg addressed a UN summit and millions of people took part in a global climate strike, lawmakers in America’s leading oil- and gas-producing state of Texas made a statement of their own.
Texas’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Act went into effect on 1 September, stiffening civil and criminal penalties specifically for protesters who interrupt operations or damage oil and gas pipelines and other energy facilities.
Within a couple of weeks, two dozen Greenpeace activists who dangled off a bridge over the Houston ship channel became the first people charged under the new law, which allows for prison sentences of up to 10 years and fines of up to $500,000 for protest groups.
The new Texas law is emblematic of the unyielding loyalty of conservative lawmakers to the fossil fuel industry in a state stacked with influential climate science deniers or sceptics such as the US senator and former Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and which named a pipeline tycoon to its parks and wildlife conservation commission.
With kindred spirits in the Trump White House, Texas is now intensifying its support of the fossil fuel industry and, pipeline by pipeline, literally laying the groundwork for production to ramp up even more in the next decade.
The scale of new production is “staggering”, according to an analysis by Global Witness, a campaign group, with Texas leading the way as US output of oil and gas is forecast to rise by 25% over the next decade. This makes it a “looming carbon timebomb”, the group believes, in a period when global oil and gas production needs to drop by 40% to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
“The sheer scale of this new production dwarfs that of every other country in the world and would spell disaster for the world’s ambitions to curb climate change,” the report states.
The US is already the planet’s leading producer of oil and gas and central to its rise is the Permian Basin, a shale region of about 75,000 sq miles extending from west Texas into New Mexico.
Despite the oil price crash of 2014, the Permian’s oil production has soared from about a million barrels a day in 2011 to about 4.5m this autumn, while natural gas production has trebled since 2013, according to US government figures.
In March, the Permian overtook Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar to become the world’s most productive oilfield. While Saudi Arabia’s overall production remains far higher, predictions that the Permian’s output will continue to grow at a similar rate – doubling by 2023 as pipeline capacity expands and major oil companies increase their presence – are alarming environmentalists.
Having some kind of wild west boom going on in Texas ... that’s just the precise opposite to what should be going on
“Having some kind of wild west boom going on in Texas where it’s every man for himself drilling as quickly as possible and trying to pull the stuff out of the ground in a kind of frenzy, that’s just the precise opposite to what should be going on,” said Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International, a clean energy advocacy group.
While there are some indicators of a slowdown in the growth rate, Chevron’s president of North American exploration and production, Steve Green, told an industry event in October that the oil major sees a “boom boom boom kind of economy” with a “long, healthy pace of activity in the Permian and Texas for decades to come”, Bloomberg reported.
The Permian’s fortunes are not dependent on the whims of one or two dominant companies – there are hundreds of operators, from tiny independents to huge multinationals such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips, many of the corporations which, as the Guardian has reported, are behind a large proportion of the planet’s carbon emissions and are poised to flood markets with an additional 7m barrels per day over the next decade.
Gene Collins has witnessed firsthand the flipside of the Permian’s economic boom. The 68-year-old, who runs an insurance agency and is on the board of a local economic development corporation, was born and raised in Odessa, a city which, with neighbouring Midland, is at the heart of the Permian. Heavy trucks are damaging road surfaces, traffic accidents have increased and housing rates have soared, he claimed.
“It has not been a gradual growth. It’s been the type of growth that puts such a strain on the community that we’re unable to keep up with what we need to handle the crowds, the influx. Our housing shortage is really epidemic. It puts a burden on our school districts. We need teachers but we can’t bring teachers in because we have no place for them to stay,” Collins said.
A report last May by the Environmental Integrity Project, a not-for-profit group, cited a lack of air quality monitoring in west Texas, with only one station to track sulphur dioxide levels, and limited regulatory oversight which relies on companies to self-report unauthorised emissions.
The pace of drilling, low prices and lack of capacity have led to the Permian’s frackers producing more natural gas than the infrastructure system can handle, prompting them to vent gas or deliberately burn it off in an environmentally harmful process known as flaring.
“We probably have some of the worst air that we’ve ever had out here in west Texas” Collins said. “Every night we flare out here, let off natural gas, a lot of it really fugitive emissions because we don’t have the regulators out here.”
A spokeswoman for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, did not respond to a request for comment on how the industry plans to improve air quality in the Permian. Its president, Todd Staples, has said that its members “are accomplishing emissions progress through voluntary programmes, innovations and efficiencies”.
New pipelines should help relieve the bottlenecks, such as the Gulf Coast Express, a 448-mile pipeline which went online in September to take natural gas from west Texas towards the state’s portion of the Gulf coast. But these too come at an environmental cost.
We’re facing a massive wave of fossil fuel facilities that we’ve never seen before
In the Rio Grande valley, at the border with Mexico, activists are battling to stop the construction of three planned liquefied natural gas processing and export facilities at the port of Brownsville.
“We’re facing a massive wave of fossil fuel facilities that we’ve never seen before,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, a local organiser with the Sierra Club, a national environmental group. “The lifeblood of those communities is nature, ecotourism, shrimping, fishing, dolphin watch tours. Having a massive fossil fuel industry is not compatible.”
Though Texas is also the national leader in wind power capacity, the fracking investment locks the state into a fossil fuel future and enables the US to export cheap gas to other countries, perpetuating worldwide demand.
Democrats in Texas are pinning their hopes on long-term demographic shifts that point to the state becoming a political battleground within the next decade, potentially paving the way for more climate-conscious policies such as restrictions on fossil fuel production, tougher regulatory regimes and promotion of renewables.
“Will Texas have a political shift that might empower Democrats at some stage who might be more willing to think about restraining the growth of the oil sector, if not reversing it?” said Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security.
Busby believes natural disasters might accelerate change by altering the economic equation. The Gulf coast’s vulnerability to storms potentially made more severe by global heating – such as Harvey, which flooded much of the Houston area in 2017 - could damage ports, refineries and petrochemical plants, erode financial markets’ enthusiasm for fossil fuel investments, hurt companies’ bottom lines and push climate concerns higher up the priority list for voters in traditionally conservative suburban and rural areas.
Collins doubts that a radical transformation is imminent. “We have climate change deniers running the government. So there’s really no benefit to them [in restricting drilling] if they think that the energy that is produced outweighs the risk,” he said.
The new measure punishing protesters, he said, underlines the political priorities in Texas: “For them to pass a law like that gives you an indication of what they think about the oil industry versus the rights and the health of human beings.”