The U.S. Cannot Be a Climate Leader and the World’s Largest Oil and Gas Producer
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09 December 2023 Author :   Dan Lashof

DUBAI, UAE (PAMACC News) - Vice President Kamala Harris was in Dubai at the UN climate summit last weekend, touting America’s climate leadership in front of hundreds of country leaders. Indeed, the Biden-Harris administration has taken some impressive steps, committing to halve emissions of climate-wrecking pollution by 2030, and backing that up with the most significant climate legislation in the nation’s history, the Inflation Reduction Act.

Yet, one pivotal piece was glaringly absent from her remarks: any commitment to cut fossil fuels, the root cause of the climate crisis. President Biden must match his prowess for promoting clean energy with an equally ambitious plan for curbing America’s fossil fuel production.

As the world’s largest and most powerful economy, the U.S. can’t simultaneously remain its biggest oil and gas producer and be an effective climate leader on the global stage. The posture is untenable — and the math doesn’t add up.

This year, the U.S. experienced a record 25 climate-connected weather disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in damage and killed nearly 400 Americans combined. Despite that grim milestone, a recent United Nations report found that our country plans to produce more oil and gas in 2030 than at any time in its history — the same fuels driving these disasters. This projection flies in the face of the White House’s stated desire to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and convince other nations to do the same.

Even as the world transitions to clean energy, some fossil fuels will continue to be used for decades. Given that reality, U.S. fossil fuel executives and their allies argue that America might as well supply this fuel by increasing oil and gas exports even while we work toward reducing domestic consumption. The problem is that every major energy producer in the world has the same idea.

The UN report shows that, taken together, government plans would result in global oil and gas production exceeding current levels until at least 2050. Should that much fossil fuel be produced, energy companies and markets would be expected to ensure that demand matches the supply — an outcome that would blow past agreed global temperature limits.

The U.S. can only seriously address climate change by rapidly cutting both fossil fuel demand and fossil fuel supply to zero, or at least near enough to zero, so that the remaining carbon dioxide emissions can be captured. Yet, while carbon capture technology may have a limited role to play, it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for fossil fuel producers. The International Energy Agency estimates that out of the 15 billion tons of emissions reductions needed by 2030, only 1 billion could be expected to be achieved through carbon capture.

Biden has an admirable record to build upon in expanding clean energy production. Clean energy investments totaled $213 billion nationwide from July 2022 to June 2023, and it’s estimated the Inflation Reduction Act will create 1.5 million more clean energy jobs by 2030. The law’s incentives will cut household energy bills and can save the average American thousands of dollars on electric vehicles, climate-friendly heat pumps and solar installation.

However, the president’s record on curbing fossil fuel production is much more problematic. Although his administration has called for ending fossil fuel production subsidies — an idea that has significant public support — Congress has yet to cut the billions of dollars in annual tax benefits that oil and gas producers have enjoyed for decades, despite oft-stated concerns about the federal deficit from both sides of the aisle. Now is the time for lawmakers to show both moral and fiscal responsibility and stop subsidizing the fuels that are causing climate chaos.

Notably, Biden has more direct control over fossil fuel production on federal lands, but he is currently outpacing former President Trump in approving oil and gas drilling on them. He needs to commit unambiguously to ending this practice.

Earlier this year the administration greenlit the massive Willow Project that will open thousands of acres of Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling and is estimated to emit 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. In other areas, Biden has restricted fossil fuel production, such as prohibiting drilling in parts of the pristine National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and revoking permits to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge issued by Trump. But overall, U.S. oil production is at record levels — and the administration currently has no plan for reducing it, even as demand for oil declines due to the rise of electric vehicles.

Finally, the president has an immediate opportunity to significantly cut greenhouse gas pollution with a single stroke of his pen, by denying permits for new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals that, if authorized, would quadruple U.S. LNG export capacity. If approved, these projects would lock in climate-warming emissions and fossil fuel dependence that will slow the adoption of clean energy.  LNG is mostly methane, which produces carbon dioxide when burned and is 80 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years when it leaks — undermining efforts to alleviate near-term warming and the extreme weather disasters it causes.

Any new oil and LNG projects would also take years to build, meaning they would become operational too late to alleviate the energy security challenges created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The transition away from fossil fuels is essential, but it won’t be seamless. The shift will necessarily impact the lives of fossil fuel workers and communities. It’s crucial that the U.S. supports those whose livelihoods currently depend on these industries to ensure that the transition is just and equitable. Importantly, the Inflation Reduction Act includes bonus incentives for clean energy projects built in legacy energy communities and invests in programs that can take advantage of oil workers’ skills, such as capping abandoned oil and gas wells and developing geothermal energy.

Biden can’t lead the world away from climate catastrophe while doubling down on oil and gas development. Reducing demand for fossil fuels is only half of the equation. To create a safe climate and a prosperous future, he must fill in the other half with an equally ambitious plan to curb fossil fuel production.

Dan Lashof is the director of World Resources Institute, United States.

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