SOURCE: The Texas Tribune

DATE: October 11, 2018

SNIP: Drilling booms have come and gone in this oil town for nearly a century. But the frenzy gripping it now is different. Overwhelming. Drilling rigs tower over suburban backyards. There’s a housing crunch so severe that rents are up 30 percent in the last year alone. Tax-averse city officials raised fees this spring just to keep basic services afloat.

This boom is engulfing the rest of West Texas, too, extending to areas that drilling hasn’t touched before. As communities welcome the jobs and the new business, they’re struggling with an onslaught of problems that include spikes in traffic accidents and homelessness.

What’s happening is unprecedented. In December, companies in the Permian Basin — an ancient, oil-rich seabed that spans West Texas and southeastern New Mexico — were producing twice as much oil as they had four years earlier, during the last boom. Forecasters expect production to double again by 2023.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and others say the drilling spree is ushering in a new era of American energy independence, but American demand isn’t driving it. Foreign demand is.

In late 2015, Congress cut a deal to lift 40-year-old restrictions on the export of crude oil. That opened the floodgates. The U.S. sold 230 million more barrels of crude to other countries in the first half of this year than it did three years earlier — a surge made possible by a virtually identical spike in Permian production.

The International Energy Agency predicts that American oil — most of it from the Permian — will account for 80 percent of the growth in global supply over the next seven years.

Hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — made this boom technologically possible, but exports are the reason there’s so much new drilling. U.S. refineries built for heavier varieties of oil than the Permian produces can’t handle the enormous new quantities of Texas light crude. Instead, companies are shipping it abroad and finding lucrative new markets.

Climbing production hasn’t boosted local tax revenues fast enough to address all the increased needs that come with it, from crowded classrooms to wrecked roads. Schools, police departments and hospitals are struggling to keep employees lured by better-paying jobs in the oilfield.

The state often fails to step in when oil and gas operations foul the air. Unpermitted air pollution is higher in West Texas counties than in much of the state, and regulators are giving operators the OK to burn off far more excess natural gas there than was allowed a decade ago. A sign near one of the wells warns of the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a contaminant in crude oil and natural gas. In high concentrations it can kill almost instantly; at low levels it can cause chronic illness.

The industry is consuming water in an arid region at an unsustainable rate: Permian Basin operators used eight times as much water to frack and drill last year as they did in 2011; the ultimate consequences are unknown because the state doesn’t require companies to disclose basic information that would allow scientists to understand the risks of all this consumption.

The U.S. is still importing oil. Substantially less than the high point in 2005, but plenty: 1.4 billion barrels in the first half of this year alone, a third of which came from the foreign oil cartel known as OPEC.

Scientists warn this drilling rush almost certainly will worsen climate change by increasing the world’s fossil fuel use at a fraught time. Such investments are meant to last for decades. “Once you’ve sunk the costs, you’re really not going to just stop,” said Richard York, an environmental studies and sociology professor at the University of Oregon. All this infrastructure makes it “very unlikely that we can dramatically curtail fossil fuel use,” he said.