COVID-19 and the oil and gas industry are at odds. Air pollution created by oil and gas activities make people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. Simultaneously, the economic impact of the pandemic is posing major challenges to oil and gas companies that were already struggling to meet their bottom line. In responding to these challenges, will our elected leaders agree on a stimulus package that prioritizes people over profits?
Health Impacts of COVID-19 and Oil & Gas
People living in areas with poor air quality may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that affects the lungs. Poor air quality is linked to higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), even without a pandemic.
Air pollution from oil and gas development can come from compressor stations, condensate tanks, construction activity, dehydrators, engines, fugitive emissions, pits, vehicles, and venting and flaring. The impact is so severe that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost due to increased exposure to pollution.
Yes, air quality has improved in certain areas of China and elsewhere due to decreased traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite our eagerness for good news, sightings of dolphins in Italian waterways does not mean that mother earth has forgiven us or “hit the reset button.”
Significant environmental health concerns persist, despite some improvements in air quality. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from areas with the high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution.
On March 8th, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke looked at the impacts of air quality improvements under COVID-19, and offered this important caveat:
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution. But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”
This is an environmental justice issue. Higher levels of air pollution tend to be in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants. Other health impacts related to oil and gas activities, from cancer to negative birth outcomes, compromise people’s health, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Plus, marginalized communities experience disproportionate barriers to healthcare as well as a heavier economic toll during city-wide lockdowns.
Financial Instability of the Oil & Gas Industry in the Face of COVID-19
The COVID-19 health crisis is setting off major changes in the oil and gas industry. The situation may thwart plans for additional petrochemical expansion and cause investors to turn away from fracking for good.
Persistent Negative Returns
Oil, gas, and petrochemical producers were facing financial uncertainties even before COVID-19 began to spread internationally. Now, the economics have never been worse.
In 2019, shale-focused oil and gas producers ended the year with net losses of $6.7 billion. This capped off the decade of the “shale revolution,” during which oil and gas companies spent $189 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they brought in through sales. This negative cash flow is a huge red flag for investors.
“North America’s shale industry has never succeeded in producing positive free cash flows for any full year since the practice of fracking became widespread.” IEEFA
Shale companies in the United States produce more natural gas than they can sell, to the extent that they frequently resort to burning gas straight into the atmosphere. This oversupply drives down prices, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.”
The oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been taking a toll on oil and gas prices as well. Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production by 2 – 3 million barrels per day in April, bringing the global total to 102 million barrels produced per day. But with the global COVID-19 lockdown, transportation has decreased considerably, and the world may only need 90 million barrels per day.
If you’ve taken Econ 101, you know that when production increases as demand decreases, prices plummet. Some analysts estimate that the price of oil will soon fall to as low as $5 per barrel, (compared to the OPEC+ intended price of $60 per barrel).
Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety
Oil and gas industry lobbyists have asked Congress for financial support in response to COVID-19. Two stimulus bills in both the House and Senate are currently competing for aid.
Speaker McConnell’s bill seeks to provide corporate welfare with a $415 billion fund. This would largely benefit industries like oil and gas, airlines, and cruise ships. Friends of the Earth gauged the potential bailout to the fracking industry at $26.287 billion. In another approach, the GOP Senate is seeking to raise oil prices by directly purchasing for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency oil supply.
Speaker Pelosi’s proposed stimulus bill includes $250 billion in emergency funding with stricter conditions on corporate use, but doesn’t contain strong enough language to prevent a massive bailout to oil and gas companies.
Hopefully with public pressure, Democrats will take a firmer stance and push for economic stimulus to be directed to healthcare, paid sick leave, stronger unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, and food security.
Grasping at straws
Fracking companies were struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19 even with generous government subsidies. It’s becoming very clear that the fracking boom is finally busting. In an attempt to make use of the oversupply of gas and win back investors, the petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly. There are currently plans for $164 billion of new infrastructure in the United States that would turn fracked natural gas into plastic.
There are several fundamental flaws with this plan. One is that the price of plastic is falling. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states that the price of plastic today is 40% lower than industry projections in 2010-2013. This is around the time that plans started for a $5.7 billion petrochemical complex in Belmont County, Ohio. This would be the second major infrastructural addition to the planned petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley, the first being the multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
Secondly, there is more national and global competition than anticipated, both in supply and production. Natural gas and petrochemical companies have invested in infrastructure in an attempt to take advantage of cheap natural gas, creating an oversupply of plastic, again decreasing prices and revenue. Plus, governments around the world are banning single-use plastics, and McKinsey & Company estimates that up to 60% of plastic production could be based on reuse and recycling by 2050.
Sharp declines in feedstock prices do not lead to rising demand for petrochemical end products.
Third, oil and gas companies were overly optimistic in their projections of national economic growth. The IMF recently projected that GDP growth will slow down in China and the United States in the coming years. And this was before the historic drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The risks are becoming insurmountable. The price of plastics is sinking and the market is already oversupplied due to industry overbuilding and increased competition,” said Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of finance and author of the report.
The Show’s Over for Oil & Gas
Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are facing perilous prospects from demand and supply sides. Increasing supply does not match up with decreasing demand, and as a result the price of oil and plastics are dropping quickly. Tens of thousands of oil and gas workers are being fired, and more than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy in North America in the past five years. Investors are no longer interested in propping up failing companies.
Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants. At this point, the economy is bound to move towards cleaner and more economically sustainable energy solutions.
It’s not always necessary or appropriate to find a “silver lining” in crises, and it’s wrong to celebrate reduced pollution or renewable energy achievements that come as the direct result of illness and death. Everyone’s first priority must be their health and the health of their community. Yet the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in our energy system, and given elected leaders a moment to pause and consider how we should move forward.
It is a pivotal moment in terms of global energy production. With determination, the United States can exercise the political willpower to prioritize people over profits– in this case, public health over fossil fuel companies.
Top photo of petrochemical activity in the Houston, Texas area. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.