America has become the largest producer of crude oil in the world, according to the US Department of Energy. The DOE announced this milestone on Thursday—the same day that Hurricane Florence will make landfall in the Carolinas, where it is expected to do widespread damage.
These two stories are not unrelated. Numerous studies have established that human-driven climate change, which is primarily caused by fossil fuel consumption, is intensifying hurricanes. In the 2017 season, hurricanes exacerbated by record-breaking summer temperatures left one third of Houston underwater and killed 3,000 people in Puerto Rico.
These amped-up hurricanes can no longer be considered freak events. Scientists at Stony Brook University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimate that Florence will be 50 miles larger in diameter and will shed 50 percent more precipitation as a result of anthropogenic warming.
The fact that so many lives and livelihoods are at stake as climate change stokes these super-storms should be energizing governments to address the main culprit behind warming temperatures—burning fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. Instead, for nearly a decade, the US has been swiftly expanding shale and offshore drilling sectors, allowing it to surpass Russia and Saudi Arabia in crude oil production as of this month.
“US crude oil production, particularly from light sweet crude oil grades, has rapidly increased since 2011,” according to a statement from the US Energy Information Administration. “Much of the recent growth has occurred in areas such as the Permian region in western Texas and eastern New Mexico, the Federal Offshore Gulf of Mexico, and the Bakken region in North Dakota and Montana.”
It’s easy to bill this boom as a net positive. There are geopolitical benefits to US energy independence (from an American perspective) and, as pro-oil commentators especially love to point out, the world’s energy demands are still heavily dependant on oil production.
Read More: Welcome to the Age of Crappy Oil
But what is so often left out of the calculus is the immeasurable social and economic costs of industrial fossil fuel expansion, ranging from the health impacts of pollution to extreme weather events. The oil and gas sector’s role in climate change is estimated to cost the US $240 billion annually, a price-tag that is expected to rise over the next decade. Even more ominous is the World Health Organization’s projection that climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.
The recent crude oil boom was mostly overseen by President Obama, who tried to balance negative environmental effects with stricter pollution regulations, efforts to curb carbon, and the Paris Agreement addressing global climate change. President Trump, in contrast, has made marginalization of climate science and deregulation of fossil fuels trademarks of his administration, which will aggravate the environmental consequences of the crude oil industry.
Even some oil and gas companies have started to reluctantly acknowledge the reality of climate change, and many have made renewable energy investments to anticipate growing consumer demand for green energy. But as yet another deadly hurricane looms on the US eastern seaboard, juiced up from soaring global temperatures, even truly earnest efforts to leverage the oil boom toward a greener future seem to be too little too late.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.