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Making future U.S. offshore oil leasing more consistent with climate goals

SEI discussion brief

Author(s): Erickson, P. ; Down, A. ; Lazarus, M.
Year: 2016

This briefing paper examines how U.S. oil production might be phased down to align with the Paris Agreement goals, focusing on offshore drilling in federal waters in particular.

Avoiding dangerous climate change requires a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. To keep warming within 2°C above pre-industrial levels – the goal reiterated in the Paris Agreement – fossil fuel use (and corresponding carbon dioxide emissions) must be phased out almost entirely within 50 years.

The short time scale to phase out fossil fuels requires prompt and ambitious action. It is widely acknowledged that to date, progress in reducing emissions has not been fast enough. Even with recent policies, global CO2 emissions are still expected to rise at least through 2040. And even as nations work to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption, investment in coal, oil and gas production remains high and is expected to hold steady or continue to grow.

That disconnect between nations' climate goals and fossil fuel-sector investment has led to questions about whether fossil fuel production needs to be constrained along with consumption. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced an intention to analyze whether it might set a "budget" for how much coal to make available for production on federal lands based on a "a declining schedule consistent with the United States' climate goals and commitments and market demand".

This briefing paper explores what a “declining schedule” might look like for U.S. oil production from federal lands, and why it might be needed. In these last days of the Obama administration, there may be opportunities to use federal leadership to initiate such a transition for oil in addition to coal. Offshore oil is especially relevant in the U.S. because it is the dominant source of oil from federal lands, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has been evaluating its upcoming lease schedule.

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