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There Are Green Jobs Hiding in the Oilfields

Paying oil workers to clean up extraction sites and capture carbon could help both the economy and the planet.

David McNew/Getty Images

Jobs and towns built on fossil fuel extraction appear to be headed for disaster. The Trump administration seems inclined to respond by throwing aid at the oil and gas CEOs who helped to engineer the indebted industry’s current predicament. The Resources for Workforce Investments, not Drilling, or ReWIND, Act introduced last week would prevent an outright bailout for corporate polluters. Less attention has been paid to how to protect the communities who stand to lose the most from plummeting oil prices, even as both drillers and oilfield services companies furlough and lay off tens of thousands of people—moves that will wreak havoc on state and local tax bases. Texas alone could shed a million jobs this year as a result of the downturn.

Capitol Hill still seems uninterested in imagining a future without fossil fuels. But in April, drillers shut down more oil drilling rigs in the United States than have been cut since the last price crash in 2015. Many will not come back online anytime soon. More than half of oil and gas workers could lose their jobs.

To blunt the impact, oil-producing states have asked the Trump administration to pay laid-off workers to start plugging the country’s roughly two million abandoned wells. There would be some precedent for this, both abroad and domestically. Canada announced the creation earlier this month of a $1.7 billion fund to clean up wells in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The fund is expected to create 5,200 jobs in those three provinces. And in the United States, the federal government already pays to clean up lots of bankrupt oil companies’ abandoned wells. Since it’s already something of a sunk cost, the oil-producing states’ request could present an opportunity for the federal government for a jobs program that will pass muster in red states. Lawmakers could decide to put a few thousand people to work in some of the places where layoffs in the extractive sector are hitting hardest. Whether through a federal job guarantee or some sort of paycheck-protection program that mandates fossil fuel companies pay workers to do something other than extract oil, the government might be able to address unemployment and help the planet at the same time.

Fossil fuel cleanup extends beyond the rigs being shut down this year. A 2018 report by the Center for Western Priorities found that reclamation of all the usable oil and gas wells on federal lands will cost $6.1 billion, far outstripping the $162 million oil and gas producers have provided for such cleanup expenses under 60-year-old federal mandates. Beyond extraction sites, about half of the country’s 450,000 contaminated lands, known as brownfield sites, are believed to owe that designation to petroleum issues, including from the leakage of storage tanks buried under gas stations. There’s a vast amount of work to be done not just plugging wells but restoring landscapes scarred by fossil fuel development.

Then there’s the possibility of putting oilfield workers to work drawing carbon down from the atmosphere. Carbon capture utilization and storage, or CCUS, is enormously controversial among climate groups, and for good reason. While it’s been raised as a possible measure to deal with climate change, much of the carbon captured now is plowed into a process known as enhanced oil recovery, wherein pressurized carbon dioxide is injected into already depleted wells to extract more fossil fuels. Beyond running counter to climate goals in the short term, this also creates a moral hazard, allowing polluting industries—including coal—to extend their lifespans, collecting both tax credits and the goodwill that comes from appearing to partake in a climate-friendly process. Fossil fuel companies have been more than happy to encourage CCUS if it means they can unearth more of their core products. Greenpeace has estimated that carbon capture could increase oil extraction as much as 185 percent. And CCUS does nothing to prevent the spread of other community-endangering pollutants released by the burning and extraction of fossil fuels.

Relying on capturing carbon at all remains a massive gamble: Emissions-curbing policy should probably proceed on the assumption that it will never scale up to the staggering levels some models suggest will be needed. Still, there are relatively few of those models for keeping warming below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) or especially 1.5 degrees Celsius that don’t involve modestly negative emissions and capturing at least some industrial carbon, in tandem with more nature-based methods of sequestration like reforestation and regenerative agriculture. And the free market seems unlikely to supply that carbon capture: While there are other ways to utilize captured carbon that don’t involve drilling, for example for cement and steel production, there may not be profitable ways to use all the carbon many models suggest capturing, and simply storing it hasn’t been an option fossil fuel companies have found attractive. Addressing the shortfall would probably require government action.

The International Energy Agency has said that 3,500 CCUS plants would be needed by 2050 to keep warming below two degrees. Just 22 were expected, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, to be operational by the end of this year. Expanding carbon capture, University of California Los Angeles research fellow Holly Buck has written, would require “infrastructure on the same scale of today’s oil industry—but to put the carbon back underground.” This would probably involve long-term job creation: “The storage takes place in caverns underground, or in depleted oil wells. And then this carbon must be monitored, to make sure it is staying there.”

The labor-intensive side of carbon capture might be a saving grace for suffering oilfield communities. A 2013 report from the Rand Corporation found considerable overlap between the type of work done by workers in the extractive sector and that required to inject and maintain carbon underground. From geologists to pipe fitters to drill operators, “the types of firms and employees who are in the existing oil and gas sector could easily transition to building carbon dioxide pipelines and injecting carbon underground,” said Costa Samaras, a co-author on the report and a civil engineer at Carnegie Mellon University. “We do a lot of things underground that aren’t oil and gas drilling.”

While optimistic about the potential for carbon capture to create jobs, Samaras told me he wouldn’t want to see it used to extend the life of the fossil fuel industry indefinitely, as some in the industry have proposed. He’d rather see it used to offset tough-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation, for which non–fossil fuel alternatives could still be decades away. It might also play a role in a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry, wherein incumbent fuels are phased down to zero. “If we’re going to have any natural gas at all,” Samaras said, “then we have to have carbon dioxide removal attached to it. Obviously we would like to displace those plants, but you could make a walking path alongside them and just have them there, and if you need them you can use them.” It’s hard, of course, to imagine that happening on the watch or balance sheets of today’s fossil fuel companies, fragile as they are. But there are a number of other options. By taking an equity stake in these flailing, cheap firms, for example, the government could keep paying workers to do similar work toward different ends.

Existing tax credits mostly encourage companies to use CCUS on their own terms, often ones that are making the climate problem worse. But if carbon capture is even half as important for decarbonization as climate models make it out to be, there’s a compelling case for the government to take a keener interest in the technology. As oil companies cut jobs and continue with haphazard or nonexistent climate mitigation efforts, there’s an opportunity for lawmakers to solve multiple problems at once. Instead of buoying an unprofitable and highly damaging industry by handing cash to executives, a stimulus program could employ former oil workers to clean up abandoned wells and build carbon-storing infrastructure, aiding the climate and the economy in equal measure.