As the 116th Congress commences, in the wake of dire reports from climate scientists, the debate over U.S. climate policies has taken a welcome turn towards bold solutions. Spurred on by grassroots pressure from Indigenous communities, the youth-led Sunrise Movement, and communities from coast to coast fighting fossil fuel infrastructure, Capitol Hill is alive once again with policy proposals that edge towards the scale required to address the crisis we’re in.

A new study released today by Oil Change International and 17 partner organizations makes it clear that managing a rapid and equitable decline of U.S. fossil fuel production must be a core component of any comprehensive climate policy.

Here’s a breakdown of what we find in the report:

Existing Fossil Fuel Projects Are Too Much Already

Previous analysis of the global disconnect between fossil fuel industry plans and climate goals underlies our U.S. report. Existing oil and gas fields and coal mines around the world already contain enough carbon to push the world beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement – and well beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) of temperature rise (Figure 1). There is already no room for new fossil fuel development anywhere in the world. Meeting the Paris Agreement goals requires stopping new exploration and extraction projects and managing the decline of the fossil fuel industry over the next few decades.

The United States, as one of the world’s largest extractors and emitters of fossil fuels – and as a wealthy country with the resources to manage a rapid and just transition to renewable energy – should be moving first and fastest to phase out fossil fuel production. Yet …

… U.S. Oil and Gas Extraction Is Rapidly Expanding

Our analysis shows that the United States is set to drive nearly 60 percent of global growth in oil and gas supply between now and 2030 – expanding production by four times the amount of any other country (Figure 4). By contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recent Special Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming warns that the world needs to cut carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 to keep warming within that limit.

Between 2018 and 2050 – the timespan over which fossil fuel emissions should be zeroing out – new U.S. drilling projects could unleash 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution (Figure 5). If left unchecked, this would amount to the world’s largest burst of new carbon emissions from oil and gas development through 2050. It would be equivalent to the lifetime carbon pollution of nearly 1,000 average U.S. coal-fired power plants.

To summarize: At precisely the time when the world must rapidly decarbonize to avoid climate disaster, the United States is moving further and faster than any other country to expand oil and gas extraction.

If not stopped, this continued drilling spree would be a disaster not only for the climate but for communities on its front lines. Our analysis indicates that communities living atop and around the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico and the Appalachian Basin underlying Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia face the biggest onslaught of new drilling (Figure 9).

Upwards of 90 percent of the projected drilling expansion analyzed in our report would depend on fracking. This would bring with it more air and water pollution, health risks, heavy trucks taking over roadways, and growing competition for water. It would mean more dangerous pipelines threatening the sovereign land and water sources of Indigenous peoples. It would mean more communities being entangled in a volatile industry that has no viable future on a livable planet.

What Does Real Climate Leadership Require?

Over the past decade plus, community-led movements have come together across North America to fight new pipelines, fracking rigs, export terminals, and, increasingly, petrochemical plants. They’ve won crucial victories: Case in point, while still being pushed by its Canadian backers and the Trump administration, the Keystone XL pipeline still isn’t built.

But too few U.S. politicians have used their own power to stop this spread of fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction. This is a major reason the oil and gas industry is in a position to drill us towards climate disaster. The industry is riding high off of decades of compounding policy decisions to lease federal and state lands and waters for extraction, to approve permits for new wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure, to leave fracking woefully unregulated, to maintain billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies, and, at the end of 2015, to lift the four-decade-long ban on crude oil exports.

The United States is now the world’s largest oil and gas producer and, increasingly, dumping our excess oil and gas into global markets, which drives down prices and undermines policies aimed at reducing demand for fossil fuels.

This report should be a wake-up call for elected officials and policymakers at all levels of U.S. government who consider themselves to be climate leaders. Real climate leadership requires decisively saying “no” to further expansion of the fossil fuel industry while enthusiastically saying “yes” to a renewable energy transition on the pace and scale of a Green New Deal.

Our report distills this into a five-point checklist for U.S. officials:

  1. Ban new leases or permits for new fossil fuel exploration, production, and infrastructure (and reject existing proposals in the meantime);
  2. Plan for the phase-out of existing fossil fuel projects in a way that prioritizes environmental justice;
  3. End subsidies and other public finance for the fossil fuel industry;
  4. Champion a Green New Deal that ensures a just transition to 100% renewable energy; and
  5. Reject the influence of fossil fuel money over U.S. energy policy.

Every decision around a new fossil fuel lease, permit, subsidy, or setback is an opportunity for U.S. politicians to stop fossil fuel expansion and champion a just transition to an economy powered by clean energy. The U.S. fossil fuel industry is gearing up to swing a giant wrecking ball through global climate goals. U.S. politicians cannot afford to stand by and let them … or worse yet, help swing it.


  • Glad you are working on emissions from fracking, and especially the under-reported methane leaks. Your message to policymakers to keep it in the ground is very important! So great job.

    However, as a researcher who follows oil and debt issues (at UNC-Chapel Hill) I wonder if your decision to rely on Rystad Energy projections (based on oil-gas industry data) is not overly optimistic — offering an unlikely scenario of future oil-gas production -esp. given such a long timeline as 2050. David Hughes’ reports — eg. 2016 Tight Oil Reality Check — criticize the optimistic fracked gas/oil projections of the EIA and he specifically discusses flattening production curves in Permian Basin in the last one. In the last 18 months reports in Financial Times, Forbes and even EIA have argued that the Permian is likely to peak in early 20s.

    The debt picture, further complicates future projections, as few fracking companies are making profits at present, and recent weakening of oil prices globally (once again) suggest a great deal of fragility in return on investment. Many companies have gone bankrupt, which has complicated financing, and there are serious limits on available rigs, etc. that constrain production. Remember that tight oil production has underwritten gas production to date, and there are much lower reserves for oil than for gas, and the wells producing oil are being tapped first, with high rates of exhaustion for individual wells.

    In terms of your editorial decisions on framing the study, I would have argued for a shorter timeline, (like 2035) and a more nuanced and critical discussion of the industry’s (always rosy) projections – which are aimed at bankers and policymakers. I know many folks working on activism around pipelines in US southeast, including NC WARN, and one of their arguments against the pipelines, based on critical analysis of fracking industry claims, is that given these Energy Return On Investment questions, there will not be sufficient gas to fill the pipelines, and therefore the economic investment of utilities building them is also questionable.

    Sandy Smith-Nonini, PhD

  • Sandy, thanks for checking out the report, and for your feedback.

    Your comments hit on important questions. There is short-term volatility in oil and gas markets. However, U.S. production is in the midst of unprecedented growth, despite skepticism from many sources about the potential of fracking. (David Hughes has done some excellent work and certainly got the situation with the Monterey shale in California right.) For the industry as a whole, many of the projections made 5 to 10 years ago have been surpassed, as drillers have tweaked their technology and methods. New oil and gas development anywhere in the world is incompatible with meeting the Paris Agreement, and yet the U.S. is expanding oil and gas production more rapidly than any other country. Our purpose in writing this report was to expose the consequences to the climate if this is allowed to continue. We do not suggest that it inevitably will continue, but point towards the political leadership needed to *ensure* it does not.

    With any projection, there is uncertainty. Final volumes of production could end up being higher or lower. Rystad Energy is an independent company – they don’t rely only on oil and gas industry data and do their own analysis and economic modeling as well. We’ve discussed their Permian forecast in particular in detail with their analyst who focuses on it, and they have done a lot of independent analysis of the factors influencing production in the basin. (Rystad’s forecasts have typically been more reliable than EIA’s, and do not share the same political motivations as either EIA or the oil companies.) It’s also important to recognize that the industry has secured for itself numerous tax breaks and benefits to keep it going in the face of market swings.

    The projections in our report are based on Rystad’s estimation of what’s commercially viable under a base price case, not the full potential of available oil and gas resources. And, if this is what is possible – and what the industry is planning for – then we urgently need political leaders to be treating it as the serious threat to our climate that it is! In our view, we should not count on markets to sort this out, even if there is, as you note, volatility and risk in the industry.

  • Kelly Trout, I am working in a related industry for over 25 years (heating systems for buildings). I have master’s degree in engineering and science. In our enterprise we’ve been using the most advanced energy efficient, sustainable technology wherever it is economically viable.
    I’ve been watching the environmental / climate change issues very closely all my professional carrier (as the indoor climate is derived from and depends on numerous aspects of the outdoor climate). My conclusion, and now certainty, is that the climate alarmism is beneficial only for obtaining universities’ research grants and for justifying activist’s existence. It is a new religion which can’t be debated in public, new Dark Age of the Western Civilization. It is harmful to the human environment, economy and Nature. The only reason the alarmism has some media traction is that THE BAD NEWS SELS.
    Pierr Pepan


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