4 ways to shrink the fossil fuel industry and protect the climate

by Tim Donaghy

February 7, 2020

Unless we take steps to halt and reverse the expansion of fossil fuel production, roughly half of any emissions reductions we might achieve through a Green New Deal could be lost.

© Amber Bracken / Greenpeace

The fracking boom has made the United States the world’s biggest oil producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia in late 2018. Surprisingly, about a quarter of that crude oil is not even used here at home; it goes directly to exports, where it pads oil company profits and makes it harder to stop climate change. 

Last week, Greenpeace and Oil Change International released a report detailing how a ban on crude oil exports — which we had from 1973 to 2015 — would help rein in this out-of-control drilling and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Reinstating the crude export ban would be a common sense reform that could reduce emissions by as much as eliminating 19 to 42 coal power plants. 

This report is yet more evidence that the next president and Congress must take strong action to phase out fossil fuel production. As a previous Greenpeace report showed, unless we take steps to halt and reverse the expansion of fossil fuel production, roughly half of any emissions reductions we might achieve through a Green New Deal could be lost.

The best path forward to address our climate crisis is a Green New Deal and a plan to phase out fossil fuel production, all the while ensuring that workers and communities are left better off through the transition. The good news is that many of the 2020 presidential hopefuls have risen to the challenge.

Step One: Stop Exporting Fossil Fuels

Lifting the oil export ban in 2015 sparked the unsustainable oil and gas boom we’re seeing today. Since then, crude oil exports have grown 750 percent, surging to more than 3 million barrels per day at the end of 2019, and likely continuing to increase in coming years to as much as 6 million barrels per day. Access to international markets has made possible some US oil production that would not have been produced with a ban on exports — and has also led to big investments in new oil pipelines and export terminal projects. 

To give one example, the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline — the target of the 2016 Standing Rock protests — recently announced plans to double the volume of crude that can flow through the pipeline, with an eye towards sending all that additional oil directly to exports.

The CEO of the nation’s largest crude exporter made the connection very succinctly: “Without the crude oil export ban repeal, the United States would not be producing half of the oil it is today because it could not be exported.”

All this new oil production means higher global greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we need to be rapidly cutting emissions. Reinstating the oil export ban could reverse this process, taking some domestic oil drilling projects off the table and potentially redirecting investment dollars from oil to renewable energy. Our report finds that reinstating the ban could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 19 to 42 coal plants worth per year — a reduction that is similar in scale to President Obama’s proposed fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer have all pledged to halt fossil fuel exports if elected; Joe Biden has also publicly committed to ending exports.

The Rest of the Fossil Fuel Phase Out To-Do List

Stopping crude exports is only the first step. To prevent the oil and gas boom from slowing our climate progress, there are a few other key policies that the next president must get done:

  • End Fossil Fuel Leasing on Federal Lands and Waters: Stopping the giveaway of our publicly-owned lands to fossil fuel companies is a common sense idea and has quickly become the standard position among democratic presidential frontrunners. Public lands account for roughly 24 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and studies have shown that such a policy could reduce global carbon emissions by 280 million tons annually by 2030.
  • End Fossil Fuel Subsidies: It is outrageous that we still give away $20 billion in direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies each year. If you include indirect subsidies (such as failing to price the negative impacts of climate change) the number swells to $650 billion a year — an amount that is greater than the market value of the produced coal, oil and gas itself. That’s money we could be using to make the Green New Deal a reality. Ending these counter-productive subsidies has also garnered support from most of the Democratic candidates.
  • Ending Permits for any new Fossil Fuel Infrastructure: Oil companies are planning massive investments in pipelines and export terminals in order to get their product from drilling fields to coastal ports and refineries. The more pipeline capacity is built the more production — and carbon emissions — can continue to grow, locking us into emissions for decades to come. But these projects need federal permits to move ahead and the next president should pledge not to approve any projects that would worsen our climate.

We need a president who supports these policies.

Check out our scorecard to see which candidates have already agreed to reinstate the crude export ban.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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