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‘One quarter’ of US emissions since 2005 come from fossil fuels on public lands
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‘One quarter’ of US emissions since 2005 come from fossil fuels on public lands

Emissions associated with the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels from US federal lands and waters


Emissions equivalent to nearly a quarter of the US total since 2005 have come from fossil fuels extracted on the nation’s public lands and waters, according to recent analysis.

The study was published in Climatic Change, which measures the volume of greenhouse gases produced by burning oil, coal, and natural gas extracted from federally owned regions. 

It also estimates how much this will change over the next decade, concluding that “minimal” reductions to these emissions are expected by 2030,The date that the US was founded. committedto reduce its emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels.

This analysis was conducted before the Biden administration’s latest AnnouncementIt will allow drilling on new federal lands. This comes amid rising pressure to reduce fuel costs.

The study’s lead author tells Carbon Brief that unless the government introduces new policies such as a carbon fee added to these fossil fuels, emissions from this sector could remain high long into the future.

Federal emissions

The study assesses the “lifecycle” emissions from coal, oil and natural gas produced on US federal lands and waters between 2005 and 2019. This includes everything, from methane from pipelines to carbon dioxide from burning coal.

On average, these emissions amounted to 1,408m tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) per year – equivalent to around 23% of domestic US emissions across this 15-year period. 

Study author Laura ZacharyAn energy analyst at Apogee Economics & Policy tells Carbon Brief that this includes both fuels that are used in the US and those that are exported abroad – although previous researchResearch has shown that only 4 percent of the total lifecycle emissions are generated outside the US. Only domestic emissions count towards the nation’s climate goals.

These values were calculated based on data available from the National Energy Board (NEB) regarding production and consumption of fossilfuels. US Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), US Energy Information Administration(EIA) & the US Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR).

The researchers then used a combination of EIA’s projections and a Machine-learning approachThey were able to predict future trends in coal, oil, and gas production across public land and waters and calculate the amount of emissions they would produce.

As you can see, fossil fuel emissions have decreased since 2005, mainly because of a decline in coal usage, which is shown in dark gray. (The chart’s grey area indicates historical US emissions. The red line represents emissions from the only energy sector.

The majority of this drop occurred between 2010 and 2016, when gas quickly replaced a lot coal in the US’s power sector. 

Emissions associated with the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels from US federal lands and waters
Emissions related to the extraction and combustion fossil fuels from US federal land and waters (green and blue areas) and central projections up to 2030 (high projections indicated with black dotted lines). Total historical US emissions are shown in light grey, the solid red line indicates historical US energy emissions and the dotted red line shows the Energy Information Administration’s projections through 2050. The 2005 reference point and the 2030 target for the US nationally determined contribution (NDC), are shown in gold squares. Source: Ratledge et al (2022).

Since then, the sector’s emissions have been relatively stable. The study’s modelling, shown by the dotted lines in the chart above, predicts “minimal additional emissions reductions stemming from fuels produced on federal lands and waters”. They will decrease by just 6% between 2019- 2030, according to the findings.

The researchers conclude that given the “aggressiveness” of the Biden administration’s upcoming Climate target – a 50-52% reduction in domestic emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 – the government “should consider how policies directed at federal lands and waters fit into their broader climate strategy”.

‘Meaningful reductions’

An argument It is often AdvancedThe only reason I support drilling on public lands, is that it would shift extraction to other areas.

The paper argues that, on the contrary, reducing federal activities would drive “meaningful emissions reductions even after accounting for partial shifts in production to non-federal lands”. Dr. Brian PrestAn economist at thinktank Resources for the FutureCarbon Brief speaks to an unnamed participant in the study.

“It’s textbook economics. Reducing the supply of a product reduces the amount of that product ultimately consumed…Shifting production – or what economists call “leakage” – partially offsets the direct effect, but the offset is not one-for-one.”

This has been supported in part by a federal court rulingResearch is equally important. A 2018 example: PaperA ban on the renewal of fossil fuel leases on US public land and waters could reduce global CO2 emissions by 280MtCO2 annually by 2030. This is equivalent to about 5% of US CO2 emissions. 

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Dr Peter Erickson, climate policy programme director at Stockholm Environment Institute US, who authored that study, tells Carbon Brief that despite these results – and the likes of the International Energy Agency (IEA) It is possible to suggest no new oil or gas fields are needed to limit warming to 1.5C – such scenarios rely primarily on reductions in demand.

As such, he says the relatively small dip expected in US federal fossil-fuel emissions “doesn’t necessarily indicate that federal lands policy is incompatible with ambitious climate goals”.

He points out that the sheer amount of fossil fuels in US federal lands could mean that targeting their supply could still be possible. Climate policy that is good

New policies

Joe Biden has had a Complex relationshipsSince becoming president in 2021, I have been using fossil fuels as a result of a campaignIn which he pledged that all oil-and gas drilling on public lands would be stopped. The conflict in Ukraine and the resulting rise in fuel prices have further complicated matters.

The most recent development was this Announcement that more than 140,000 acres of public lands would be opened up to oil-and-gas leasing, a move that many viewed as violating Biden’s campaign pledge and hampering US climate targets. 

Administration Distinguished itself from the action, with officials emphasising that they were acting in response to a court decision that forced them to restart drilling, against the president’s policy. 

Nathan Ratledge, a PhD student at and fellow at Stanford UniversityCarbon Brief spoke to the researcher who led the study. He said that it was difficult to estimate the impacts of new leases on carbon emissions in 2030 and beyond. Noting that drilling may take years, he also mentioned that it might be difficult to predict the future.

Nevertheless, he says that “our emissions profile could stay higher beyond 2040 if [fuel] prices stay high and we don’t pass any policy”.

As it stands, the researchers say fossil fuels from federal lands are very cheap as they are “effectively subsidised” with low leasing and production fees.

In announcing the new round of leases, the Biden administration said it would raise royalty rates paid by fossil fuel companies to the federal government – a move that has the PotentialTo reduce emissions. 

Ratledge notes that on top of this a carbon fee applied to fossil fuels from federal lands would be a “no-brainer”.

Such policies are particularly relevant as fossil fuels on federal lands can largely be regulated without the approval of Congress – something that has hinderedRecent attempts to pass US legislation on climate change. 

Jamie PleuneAssociate professor of Environmental Law at the University of Utah tells Carbon Brief the study is “valuable and insightful”, noting that the predicted drop in federal fossil fuel emissions “could be much better”. She said:

“The federal government has the ability to implement policies that would achieve greater emission reductions, including imposing a net-zero emission requirement on all new oil and gas development. This could be achieved using existing legal tools, available crediting methodologies, and without waiting for Congressional action.”

Experts note, however, that because of the global nature fossil fuel markets, most of the emissions savings from US production would be realized in foreign countries due the impact on oil prices. Carbon Brief: Prest tells Carbon Brief

“The climate doesn’t care about accounting, of course, but this makes it difficult to relate the potential emissions reductions from federal lands policy to those US targets.”

Data missing

The researchers say they are filling a gap as the US government has “neglected to track emissions [from fossil fuels on federal lands] in a comprehensive manner”.

A few exceptions were made for a US Geological Survey (USGS) Report released in 2018, commissioned by the Obama administration two years earlier with the intention of creating an “annually updated database”. The data has not been updated since Donald Trump’s election in 2018.

The new analysis builds upon the USGS work and uses more current figures. It also extends the estimates to 2030. These figures are crucial for US climate policy, according to the study authors. “Simply put – we typically don’t regulate what we don’t measure,” Ratledge tells Carbon Brief.

Ratledge et al (2022), Climate mitigation and Climatic Change are possible from emissions from fossil fuels that are produced on US federal lands. doi: 0.1007/s10584-021-03302-x.

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