Skip to main content

Would constraining US fossil fuel production affect global CO2 emissions? A case study of US leasing policy


Avoiding dangerous climate change will require a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. By some estimates, global consumption and production of fossil fuels—particularly coal and oil—will need to end almost entirely within 50 years. Given the scale of such a transition, nations may need to consider policies that constrain growth in fossil fuel supplies in addition to those that reduce demand. Here, we examine the emissions implications of a supply-constraining measure that was rapidly gaining momentum in the United States (US) under the Obama administration: ceasing the issuance of new leases for fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and waters. Such a measure could reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 280 million tons annually by 2030, comparable to that of other major climate policies adopted or considered by the Obama administration. Our findings suggest that measures to constrain fossil fuel supply—though not currently viable in a US Trump administration—deserve further consideration at subnational levels in the US or by other countries now, and by future US administrations.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. Aldina J (2013) Canada’s role as a global coal supplier. Coal Association of Canada 2013 Conference, Vancouver

  2. Anderson K, McKibbin WJ (2000) Reducing coal subsidies and trade barriers: their contribution to greenhouse gas abatement. Environ Dev Econ 5(4):457–481

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bauer N, Mouratiadou I, Luderer G, Baumstark L, Brecha RJ, Edenhofer O, Kriegler E (2013) Global fossil energy markets and climate change mitigation—an analysis with REMIND. Climatic Change online 22 October

  4. BLM (2017) Federal coal program: programmatic environmental impact statement-scoping report. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Washington, D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  5. BLM (2016) Notice of intent to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement to review the federal coal program and to conduct public scoping meetings (no. 81 FR 17720, document no. 2016-07136). U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Washington, DC

  6. Bordoff J, Houser T (2015) Navigating the U.S. oil export debate. Columbia University, Center on Global Energy Policy and Rhodium Group, New York

  7. Briscoe MB (2017) Wild Earth Guardians & Sierra Club v. United States Bureau of Land Management and Wyoming Mining Association; BTU Western Resources, Inc; State of Wyoming; National Mining Association, Elisabeth A. Shumaker

  8. Burger M, Wentz JA (2017) Downstream and upstream greenhouse gas emissions: the proper scope of NEPA review. Harvard Environmental Law Review 41(1):109–187.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. CARB (2017) The 2017 climate change scoping plan update: the proposed strategy for achieving California’s 2030 greenhouse gas target. California Air Resources Board

  10. CEA (2016) The economics of coal leasing on federal lands: ensuring a fair return to taxpayers. White House Council of Economic Advisers, Washington, D.C

    Google Scholar 

  11. Copenhagen Economics (2017) The future of fossil fuels: how to steer fossil fuel use in a transition to a low-carbon energy system. Energy Transitions Commission

  12. Davis SJ, Peters GP, Caldeira K (2011) The supply chain of CO2 emissions. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108:18554–18559

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Energy Modeling Forum (2013) Changing the game? Emissions and market implications of new natural gas supplies (EMF Report 26). Stanford University, Stanford

    Google Scholar 

  14. Erickson P, Lazarus M (2014) Impact of the keystone XL pipeline on global oil markets and greenhouse gas emissions. Nat Clim Chang 4:778–781

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Fæhn T, Hagem C, Lindholt L, Mæland S, Rosendahl KE (2017) Climate policies in a fossil fuel producing country: demand versus supply side policies. Energy J 38(1):77–102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gillingham K, Stock JH (2016) Federal minerals leasing reform and climate policy. The Hamilton Project, Brookings

  17. Geiling N (2017) France just became the second country in the world to end oil exploration. Think progress. Retrieved from

  18. Gerarden T, Reeder WS, Stock JH (2016) Federal Coal Program Reform, the Clean Power Plan, and the interaction of upstream and downstream climate policies (working paper no. 22214). National Bureau of Economic Research

  19. Gurría A (2013) The climate challenge: achieving zero emissions. Lecture by the OECD Secretary-General London, 9 October 2013

  20. Haftendorn C, Kemfert C, Holz F (2012) What about coal? Interactions between climate policies and the global steam coal market until 2030. Energy Policy 48:274–283

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Haggerty M, Lawson M, Pearcy J (2015) Steam coal at an arm’s length: an evaluation of proposed reform options for US coal used in power generation (SSRN scholarly paper no. ID 2627865). Social Science Research Network, Rochester

  22. Hamilton JD (2009) Understanding crude oil prices. Energy J 30:179–206

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Headwaters Economics (2015) Federal coal lease database. Bozeman, MT

  24. Heede R (2013) Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Clim Chang 122:229–241

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Huffman J, Lieu T, Honda M et al (2016) Keep it in the Ground Act of 2016

  26. IEA (2015) World energy outlook 2015. International Energy Agency, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  27. IEA (2016) World energy outlook 2016. International Energy Agency, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  28. IEA (2017) Energy technology perspectives 2017. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  29. IPCC (2006) 2006 IPCC guidelines for national greenhouse gas inventories. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hayama

  30. IPCC (2014) Summary for policymakers: climate change 2014: mitigation of climate change. Contribution of working group III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University press, Cambridge and New York

  31. Jaccard M, Hoffele J, Jaccard T (2018) Can carbon budgets and oil pipeline approvals be linked? [this issue]

  32. Jiao JL, Fan Y, Wei Y-M (2009) The structural break and elasticity of coal demand in China: empirical findings from 1980-2006. Int J Glob Energy Issues 31:331–344

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Joskow PL (1987) Contract duration and relationship-specific investments: empirical evidence from coal markets. Am Econ Rev 77:168–185

    Google Scholar 

  34. Lazarus M, Tempest K, Klevnas P, Korsbakken JI (2015) Natural gas: guardrails for a potential climate bridge. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm and Seattle

  35. Luppens JA, Scott DC (2015) Coal geology and assessment of coal resources and reserves in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming and Montana (USGS Numbered Series No. 1809), Professional paper. U.S. Geological Survey, Reston

  36. Masnadi MS, Brandt AR (2017) Climate impacts of oil extraction increase significantly with oilfield age. Nature Clim Change 7:551–556

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. McGlade C, Ekins P (2015) The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C. Nature 517:187–190

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. McKinsey and Company (2007) Reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: how much at what cost? The Conference Board, New York

  39. Merkley J, Cardin B, Sanders B et al (2015) Keep it in the Ground Act of 2015

  40. Metcalf G (2016) The impact of removing tax preferences for U.S. oil and gas production. Council on Foreign Relations

  41. Miller LA, Bate RL (2011) Powder River basin coal resource and cost study: Campbell, Converse and Sheridan counties, Wyoming Big Horn, Powder River, Rosebud and Treasure counties, Montana (report no. 3155.001). Denver, CO

  42. Muttitt G, McKinnon H, Stockman L, Kretzmann S, Scott A, Turnbull D (2016) The Sky’s limit: why the Paris climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production. Oil Change International, Washington, D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  43. ONRR (2015) Statistical information. Office of Natural Resources Revenue

  44. Paltsev S, Reilly JM, Jacoby HD, Morris JF (2009) The cost of climate policy in the United States. Energy Economics 31(supplement 2):S235–S243

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Perloff JM (2007) Microeconomics, 4th ed. Pearson, London

  46. Pierce BS, Dennen KO (2009) The national coal resource assessment overview, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper. United States Geological Survey, Reston

    Google Scholar 

  47. Piggot G, Erickson P, Lazarus M, van Asselt H (2017) Addressing fossil fuel production under the UNFCCC: Paris and beyond (working paper). Stockholm Environment Institute, Seattle

    Google Scholar 

  48. Rockström J, Gaffney O, Rogelj J, Meinshausen M, Nakicenovic N, Schellnhuber HJ (2017) A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science 355(6331):1269–1271

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Rogelj J, Schaeffer M, Meinshausen M, Knutti R, Alcamo J, Riahi K, Hare W (2015) Zero emission targets as long-term global goals for climate protection. Environ Res Lett 10:105007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Rystad Energy (2016) Cube browser, version 1.18. Oslo, Norway

  51. Rystad Energy (2017) UCube update and market perspectives. Oslo, Norway

    Google Scholar 

  52. Sathaye J, Meyers S (1995) Greenhouse gas mitigation assessment: a guidebook. Springer

  53. Steininger KW, Schinko T (2016) Environmental policy in an open economy: refocusing climate policy to address international trade spillovers. In: Dynamic approaches to global economic challenges. Springer, Cham, pp 171–190

  54. Sinn H-W (2012) The green paradox: a supply-side approach to global warming. The MIT Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  55. Stern DI (2012) Interfuel substitution: a meta-analysis. J Econ Surv 26:307–331

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. UNEP (2017) The emissions gap report 2017. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi

    Google Scholar 

  57. US EIA (2015a) Analysis of the impacts of the Clean Power Plan. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  58. US EIA (2015b) Monthly energy review, January 2015. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  59. US EPA (2012) Final rulemaking for 2017-2025 light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards and corporate average fuel economy standards (no. EPA-420-R-12-016). Assessment and Standards Division, Office of Transportation and Air Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC

  60. US EPA (2013) Documentation for EPA base case v.5.13 using the integrated planning model (No. Report No. 450R13002). Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from

  61. US EPA (2014) Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2013. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  62. US EPA (2015a) Proposed rulemaking for greenhouse gas emission standards and fuel efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty engines and vehicles–phase 2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  63. US EPA (2015b) Regulatory impact analysis for the Clean Power Plan final rule (no. EPA-452/R-15-003). Office of air and Radiation. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park

  64. US GAO (2013) BLM could enhance appraisal process, more explicitly consider coal exports, and provide more public information. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  65. Vulcan/ICF (2016) Federal Coal Leasing Reform Options: effects on CO2 emissions and energy markets. Fairfax, VA

    Google Scholar 

  66. Wolvovsky E, Anderson W (2016) OCS oil and Natural gas: potential lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and social cost of carbon. U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Sterling

Download references


The authors thank Jeff Archibald, Mike McCormick, John Larsen, Peter Marsters, Paul Ekins, Michael Mellish, and Spencer Reeder for helpful discussions about data and methodology. Adrian Down at SEI-US provided research support, and Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics and Sivan Kartha of SEI-US helped review this article.


Funding support was provided by Friends of the Earth US.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Erickson.

Additional information

This article is part of a Special Issue on “Fossil Fuel Supply and Climate Policy” edited by Harro van Asselt and Michael Lazarus.

Electronic supplementary material


(DOCX 76 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Erickson, P., Lazarus, M. Would constraining US fossil fuel production affect global CO2 emissions? A case study of US leasing policy. Climatic Change 150, 29–42 (2018).

Download citation