What I Said—and Wish I’d Had a Chance to Say—When I Testified on Future Oil and Gas Drilling in Gulf of Mexico

January 26, 2022 | 2:07 pm
U.S. Coast Guard
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

Last week I had the opportunity to testify at a hearing on “What More Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas Leasing Means for Achieving U.S. Climate Targets” held by the House Natural Resource Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

You can watch a recording of the full hearing that includes the testimony of two other majority witnesses, Dr. Beverly Wright and Mr. Max Sarinsky, both of whom provided excellent and insightful comments (my testimony begins at about the 27:30 mark).

On the other hand, the hearing served as a reminder to me of how far we have to go before the majority of elected officials on both sides of the aisle truly begin acting with the urgency climate change deserves. The clips in this video are indicative of the kind of thinking we continue to have to push back on.

Why have a hearing about oil and gas leases now?

This hearing was very timely. Shortly after his inauguration in January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order pausing all new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which include millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal courts subsequently issued an injunction that blocked the Biden Administration’s pause on leasing. Just days after the COP climate negotiations in Glasgow, during which the Biden Administration repeatedly stated its commitment to fighting climate change, the Department of Interior opened lease sales for oil and gas drilling on 80 million acres of federal land in the Gulf of Mexico.

As the hearing came to a close, I wished I’d had another 90 seconds to speak. Of the many things that didn’t fit into my five minutes of oral testimony or my responses to subcommittee member questions, two remain on my mind:

  1. There is clear and copious evidence showing that the health and wellbeing of Black and brown people on the Gulf Coast have disproportionately suffered as a result of the region’s thriving fossil fuel industry and that the industrial facilities across the country have deliberately been sited in Black and brown communities. Denying these facts and this reality is racism in action.
  2. The assumption—made repeatedly during the hearing— that oil and gas from international sources would compensate for decreased oil and gas supply from the Gulf of Mexico is both off-the-mark and an oversimplification. Decreased production from fossil fuels like oil and gas can and must be met with increases in carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar.

With that, my oral testimony on this topic is below, and my full written testimony is also available.

Chairperson Lowenthal, Ranking Member Stauber, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today about the implications of additional oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. My name is Dr. Kristina Dahl, and I am a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I have spent the last decade of my career working to understand how climate change will affect communities across the United States and how the choices we make today will shape the world we ultimately pass along to our children and grandchildren.

The message I’d like to communicate to you today is this: We have precious little time to effect a wholesale shift in how we power our lives and our economy if we wish to avert the most dangerous consequences of climate change. We are decades late in making that shift, so any increases in our heat-trapping emissions will make the narrow chance we have of averting those consequences even slimmer. The federal government can and must align its actions with what is needed to meet the climate challenge and therefore must not apply business-as-usual thinking to energy-related decisions, including those relating to leasing federal lands in the Gulf of Mexico.

The cumulative result of every energy-related decision for the last 150 years is that we are now struggling to cope with a climate that is nearly 2°F (1°C) warmer than it was at the start of the 20th century. In the US in 2021 alone, heat waves claimed the lives of some of the most vulnerable among us. Wildfires crossed the spine of the Sierra Nevada twice and made the air we breathe toxic for thousands of miles downwind. Hurricanes intensified at an unbelievable pace before leaving 1,000-mile-long trails of destruction. During these and many other climate-related events in 2021, we watched as infrastructure built for the climate of our ancestors failed and as people lost their homes and lives.

Recognizing that the consequences of climate change would be devastating with continued warming, in 2015, the US and other signatories of the Paris Agreement committed to pursuing efforts to limit future warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The science now tells us that to have a 50/50 chance of staying within that limit, nations around the world can only collectively emit another 500 GtCO2—our collective carbon budget. At the current global pace of emissions, we are in danger of exceeding that budget and reaching the 1.5°C mark within the next 10 to 20 years.

To ensure that warming does not exceed 1.5°C, use of all fossil fuels, including oil and gas, must decline significantly and quickly. The US has committed to reducing fossil fuel use and such reductions could be at least partially achieved by expedited passage by Congress of the Build Back Better Act. Yet in November of 2021, with that package stalled in Congress, the US government opened more than 80 million acres of federal land in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leases that could produce up to 1.2 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years. As a rough estimate, the full combustion of those products would release an estimated 0.76 GtCO2—equivalent to about 16% of the nation’s fossil-fuel emissions for one year.

Phasing out our use of fossil fuels is about much more than securing our climate goals. Spills from drilling equipment in the Gulf of Mexico have affected the environment and ecosystems repeatedly and tragically for decades, and Gulf Coast residents have lost their livelihoods and experienced long-lasting health problems because of these spills. Given that climate change is expected to increase the intensity of hurricanes, and given the prevalence of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, siting yet more drilling infrastructure within the Gulf could place additional health burdens on residents living alongside and suffering from the output from fossil fuel facilities.

The science is clear that surpassing the 1.5°C temperature target would be disastrous. Science has also shown us that that temperature target translates into a specific carbon budget that, in turn, necessitates sharp reductions in fossil fuel use and systemic shifts in our energy system. We must therefore assess our energy investments holistically, not as one-offs, to ensure the smoothest possible transition to cleaner forms of energy. With the stakes so high, continuing with lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico without taking the time to fully interrogate whether or how the enabled extraction will fit with our nation’s future is reckless and irresponsible.