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The world’s top 10 “carbon bombs” and what they mean for climate change

“Carbon bombs” could push carbon emissions to exceed the global climate budget – twice

WORKSITE Ltd., Unsplash
27 July 2022
Lily Hess
27 July 2022
Lily Hess

Much has been done by countless people, organizations, businesses and leaders to stave off the effects of climate change. Over decades, concerned individuals have changed their diets, switched to renewable energy, taken organized action and invested money in a desperate bid to save future generations from the hardships of living in a world heated beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But these efforts could be derailed by massive fossil fuel projects either planned or already running.

This May, The Guardian published an in-depth article introducing readers to “carbon bombs” – fossil fuel projects planned or in operation that over their lifetime will release more than 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions. (For reference, 1 ton of carbon dioxide is approximately equivalent to the emissions from a single passenger flying from Paris to New York; a gigaton is a billion of these flights.) Although the Guardian article only included oil and gas projects, the research on which it was based found that 425 carbon bombs exist when coal projects are included. 

Oil, gas and coal carbon bombs combined are expected to emit 1,182.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This is twice the world’s total remaining carbon budget for even a chance to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement to keep global warming in check.

This revelation comes at a the most difficult time yet for tackling climate change. Millions of people, particularly from developing countries, are struggling to get by in a time marked by rising energy prices due to the war in Ukraine. Despite recent progress on decarbonizing their economies, countries are now scrambling for fossil fuels to burn.

This leaves no easy path to decarbonization. And yet the climate crisis refuses to wait for the world to be ready. The authors of the research mentioned above stated that they put the list of carbon bombs together to provide a focus for climate activists and policymakers on “defusing” the biggest fossil fuel projects. Landscape News has further narrowed it down here to the ten biggest carbon bombs:

Folded gyprock in the Permian at New Mexico, U.S. James St. John, Flickr
Folded gyprock in the Permian at New Mexico, U.S. James St. John, Flickr

#1: Permian Delaware Tight

Some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the United States – and indeed the world – are in the Permian Basin beneath Texas and New Mexico. A section called the Permian Delaware Tight contains over 46 billion barrels of oil and 281 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Oil production here is expected to grow by half a million barrels per day this year.

Although oil extraction in the Permian Basin was thought to peak by the 1970s, the rise of unconventional drilling methods – particularly fracking techniques and horizontal drilling – allowed for the massive uptake in drilling seen today. Fracking here is controversial because of amount of water the process requires, especially with the basin sitting in an arid part of the U.S.

The report authors calculated that the Permian Delaware Tight projects could potentially emit 27.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime.

#2: Marcellus Shale

The Marcellus Shale covers the U.S. states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and some of New York and Ohio, holding one of the largest amounts of recoverable natural gas in the country at 410 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves. Accessing this largely depends on fracking techniques, which aside from consuming large amounts of water also results in methane emissions and possible wastewater contamination

The Marcellus Shale projects could ultimately emit 26.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide, say the report authors.

A map showing the Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia. Anastrophe, Wikimedia Commons
A map showing the Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia. Anastrophe, Wikimedia Commons

#3: Ghawar Field

This onshore oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest and sits on top of 48 billion barrels of oil. Entirely owned and run by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, the Ghawar oil field has produced roughly half of the country’s total oil production since its operations began in 1951. It can pump up to 3.8 million barrels of oil per day.

According to the report, this oil field could produce 19.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions.

#4: Permian Midland Tight

Also a part of the hydrocarbon-rich Permian Basin, the Midland Tight in the U.S. state of Texas was home to the first commercial well in the basin. Like in the Delaware Tight, the development of fracking and horizontal drilling led to an explosion of oil and gas extraction, which is expected to increase by another 450,000 barrels per day this year.

Overall, the Permian Midland Tight could result in 16.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the authors of the report.

The Tavan Talgoi Coal Mine in 2010. Brücke-Osteuropa, Wikimedia Commons
The Tavan Talgoi Coal Mine in 2010. Brücke-Osteuropa, Wikimedia Commons

#5: Tavan Talgoi Coal Mine

The Tavan Talgoi Coal Mine is the world’s largest proposed coal mine and is located in southern Mongolia’s Gobi Desert region. The Mongolian state-owned company Erdenes Tavan Talgoi, which owns the mine, claims that it contains at least 6.5 billion tons of coal

Although the mine has faced setbacks through unsuccessful international partnerships and attempts to be listed on global stock exchanges, it raised USD 200 million last year in a first round of domestic bond issues in order to build the infrastructure needed to replace Australia as China’s main coal importer as relations between the two countries deteriorate. 

The report estimates that the Tavan Talgoi Coal Mine could potentially release 16.0 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions.

#6: Montney Play

The Montney Play in western Canada has some of the largest oil and gas potential in North America. A 2013 study found that the play might contain 449 trillion cubic feet of marketable natural gas, 14.5 billion barrels of natural gas liquids and more than 1 billion barrels of oil. It remained relatively undeveloped until 2005, when unconventional drilling methods like horizontal drilling and fracking opened the vast resources in the play.

The report on carbon bombs puts the potential carbon dioxide emissions of the Montney Play at 13.7 gigatons.

Fracking on the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana, U.S. Daniel Foster, Wikimedia Commons
Fracking on the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana, U.S. Daniel Foster, Wikimedia Commons

#7: Haynesville/Bossier Shale

The Haynesville/Bossier Shale sits under parts of the southern U.S. states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. The two formations combined contain an estimated 304 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 4 billion barrels of oil and 1.9 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. 

So far, statistics from the Railroad Commission of Texas state that more than 7 trillion cubic feet of gas and more than a million barrels of condensate (a light liquid that contains natural gas liquids and naphtha, a type of flammable hydrocarbon mixture) have been extracted from there since 2008.

This region could emit 13.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide, says the carbon bomb report.

#8: Safaniya

Saudi Arabia’s Safaniya Oil Field is the world’s largest offshore conventional field. Owned and operated by Saudi Aramco, the field is located in the Persian Gulf, and up to 1.3 billion barrels of crude oil can be extracted from there per day. In total, it is estimated to hold at least 34 billion barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The report authors put the potential total emissions from this oil field at 11.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

US Energy Information Administration, Wikimedia Commons
US Energy Information Administration, Wikimedia Commons

#9: North Field

North Field is a name for a gas field that sits in Qatar’s territorial waters and makes up a large part of the greater South Pars/North Dome field shared by Qatar and Iran. This offshore gas field is considered the world’s largest, with Qatar’s North Field portion alone thought to contain 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – around 10 percent of known reserves in the world. 

The gas field is run by a subsidiary of the state-owned company QatarEnergy, and a project is underway there to expand the country’s liquid natural gas production capacity by 64 percent by 2027.

The report states that North Field could ultimately release 11.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime.

#10: Bovanenkovo Zone (Yamal Megaproject)

The Bovanenkovo gas field is located in northern Siberia and contains an estimated 177 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The field can produce up to 115 billion cubic feet of gas per year and is operated by the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom as a part of the greater Yamal Megaproject, which aims to exploit the gas reserves of the Yamal Peninsula.

In total, the researchers estimate that the Bovanenkovo gas field could emit 11.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

The Bovanenkovo gas field. www.kremlin.ru, Wikimedia Commons
The Bovanenkovo gas field. www.kremlin.ru, Wikimedia Commons

Although the carbon bombs listed above are the biggest in terms of size, China is the country with the largest overall impact, with 141 total carbon bombs (mostly coal projects) that could ultimately emit 332.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This is followed by the United States (151.1 gigatons), Russia (117 gigatons) and Saudi Arabia (107.1 gigatons).

In light of the Guardian article about carbon bombs, a coalition to defuse them has emerged and provides information about organizations already working to stop these fossil fuel projects. For most of the 425 carbon bombs, however, resistance efforts still appear nonexistent or unknown.

Nevertheless, the report authors note that their study sheds light on the exact projects that stand to worsen the climate crisis the most, and that this could help steer the course of the global climate movement in order to make the greatest impact.


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