To the dismay of green activists, the Biden administration approved the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska in March 2023. The field will produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day and create as many as 1,800 jobs, and will require an estimated investment of $8bn from lease-owner ConocoPhillips to become operational. 

Prior to the project’s approval, President Joe Biden said he was inclined to block the Willow project – but he was told by his lawyers that in such an instance, ConocoPhillips would most likely sue his administration, and ultimately be able to secure it. Nevertheless, no political excuse can account for the devastating climate environmental impact many now fear the project will unleash: situated in a fragile Arctic environment, Willow will produce enough oil to release 9.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) each year, equivalent to two million gasoline-powered cars. 

Andres Reyes, an upstream analyst at GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company, adds that the approval of Willow, and the development of new oil infrastructure in the region, may now increase the likelihood of other proposed US Arctic oil projects – such as ConocoPhillips’ Putu and Stony Hill – being approved for development. 

While there are particular environmental concerns around oil projects in pristine Arctic environments, Willow fundamentally represents only a drop in the ocean of US oil and gas production. Since the shale revolution of the 2010s, the US has surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. While Biden has made climate action a top prioritynavigating choppy political waters to get his seminal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) approved – nothing has been introduced to usher in a managed decline of fossil fuel assets, or stop new projects being approved for extraction: both of which the International Energy Agency (IEA) says are needed for the world to be on track for net zero by 2050. 

A new data investigation from Energy Monitor has quantified just how damaging to the climate this failure to curb US oil will be. 

US oil: blowing the carbon budget five times over

There are some 75 billion barrels of oil remaining in active fields across the US, with a further four billion barrels in fields such as Willow, which are currently planned, according to exclusive oil fields data from GlobalData. Active US fields also have some 744 trillion cubic feet of gas remaining, while planned fields contain two trillion cubic feet of gas. 

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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a barrel of oil emits 0.43 tonnes of CO₂ when burnt, while 1,000 cubic feet of gas emits 0.0551 tonnes of CO₂ when burnt. If we view all the oil and gas remaining in active and planned US fields in terms of the CO₂ produced when burnt, the oil will produce 34 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO₂, while the gas will produce 41Gt. 

At the start of 2023, the Global Carbon Project – a leading organisation of climate scientists who have pioneered carbon budget modelling – estimated that the world could now only emit a further 380Gt of CO₂ to have a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. A US fair share of that remaining budget would be around 15Gt (4.2% of the total, reflecting the US share of the world’s population).

The fossil fuels the US is currently planning to extract from its oil and gas fields will therefore produce five times more CO₂ than exists in the US’s 1.5°C carbon budget. This would scupper both US – and global – ambitions to keep warming at 1.5°C, as outlined at both the COP26 and COP27 climate conferences.

“This data shows how crucial the US is to the world’s hopes of addressing the climate crisis,” says Colin Rees from NGO Oil Change International. “If we are not willing to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and keep fossil fuels in the ground, it will be next to impossible to meet global climate targets.

“From a perspective of global equity, the US should be among the first and fastest to phase out fossil fuel production and rapidly scale up renewable energy. [The US is] woefully out of line with the science and in danger of committing a grave injustice by not stopping oil and gas expansion and phasing out fossil fuel production.” 

Olivier Bois von Kursk, from think tank the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), concurs that the data shows how US oil and gas plans spell disaster for the planet. 

“US oil and gas extraction plans are fundamentally at odds with its commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” says Bois von Kursk. “According to IISD’s analysis of all major 1.5°C pathways [including from the IEA, International Renewable Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], there is no room for any new oil and gas developments.” 

Bois von Kursk further points out that the Paris Agreement establishes a “principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”, which clearly states how more developed, wealthier countries such as the US have a responsibility to decarbonise more rapidly. The 4.2% share of the remaining carbon budget is therefore a “conservative estimate of how much the US would be allowed to consume from the remaining budget since it does not reflect their contribution to past emissions and their capacity to transition”. 

Given that the US is the world’s largest historic emitter, responsible for 24% of emissions since 1850, there is a strong case to be made that the US should phase out its fossil fuel production more rapidly than other petrostates. Indeed, a 2022 report from the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre makes just that case, arguing that countries with a “high capacity to diversify” – including the US, the UK, Qatar and Norway – should end production by 2034, with a 74% cut by 2030.

CO₂ is not the only greenhouse gas that results from fossil fuel production: significant quantities of methane are also released, which is a greenhouse gas 84-times more potent than CO₂ over a 20-year period. 

The US was the sixth-largest flarer – which is the burning of excess methane released from oil and gas wells – by volume in 2022, according to the World Bank. Recent research also shows that the US oil and gas industry released 70% more methane during production from 2010–19 than had previously been estimated by the EPA, either via venting (releasing methane that is not burnt) or through leaks.

New drilling licences, new midstream investment

During a 2020 presidential debate, Biden made his ambitions to curb US oil crystal clear: “No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period.” 

The president’s record on delivering this pledge has been mixed: while Biden paused any new leases of federal territory to oil companies in his first week of office, this was overturned by a federal judge in the oil state of Louisiana. Indeed, just two weeks after Willow was approved for production, an area the size of Italy was put up for auction for drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico, with 32 fossil fuel companies collectively bidding $309.7m for drilling rights. The sale was required under the IRA via language included at the insistence of US Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).

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Biden also promised to stop issuing new drilling permits on leased federal lands. However, having now issued more than 7,000 permits, the Biden administration has approved more drilling permits than the Trump administration did at the same point in Trump’s presidency. 

GlobalData’s data gives a sense of just how much more oil and gas production could be initiated if these processes of leasing and drilling are allowed to reach the ultimate outcome of commercial production, as the companies involved intend. The data lists some 300 known fields, largely in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, where appraisal drilling has taken place but which remain “emerging opportunities”, where commercial viability is still to be determined. 

It is not only upstream where a new oil rush is taking place. The US also has some 15,000km of oil and gas pipelines under development, largely to service new infrastructure, shows GlobalData data. 

The year 2022 saw the US become the world's biggest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, as the country capitalised on a tight global LNG market in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The country has a further 29 LNG liquefaction facilities under development, according to GlobalData. According to Reuters, around a dozen of these projects are hoping to make final investment decisions in 2023 alone. 

“New LNG and gas infrastructure still locks in decades of emissions at rates far too high to allow us to reach our climate targets,” says Rees. “Climate leadership means being willing to say ‘no’ to more oil and gas and to invest heavily in a just transition, not just giving lip service to addressing the climate crisis while continuing business as usual.”

The so-called ‘climate president’ 

Ever since he was on the campaign trail, Biden has been hailed as the first “climate president”, and he has continually highlighted climate action as a top priority. Soon after entering the White House he re-entered the US into the Paris Agreement, and held a summit of world leaders where he announced that the US would aim to reduce emissions by 50–52% by 2030 compared with 2005. In August 2022, the $370bn IRA created an array of game-changing tax breaks to expand clean energy technologies, while the EPA is preparing aggressive new rules to curb power plant emissions

Guiding a society as politically polarised as the US is always going to involve significant concessions to business and political interests. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the country’s fossil fuel industry and extraction plans, coupled with an unparalleled wealth and ability to change tack, means that business as usual for the US fossil fuel industry remains a galling prospect for environmentalists. 

Read more from this author: Nick Ferris

“Politically, stopping new projects before they start is an order of magnitude easier than phasing out existing ones, while also preventing new ones from coming online,” points out Bois von Kursk. “The focus should be on preventing any new oil and gas fields from being developed since each one increases the risks of stranded assets while pushing the world beyond 1.5°C of warming.”

Andrew Logan, oil and gas lead at the US climate think tank Ceres, adds that the US is in a unique position to drive a transition away from an oil and gas-fuelled economy, because while most major economies are “divided into producers and consumers… [the US] is able to directly influence both the supply and demand sides of the fossil fuel industry”.

The US has a choice, says Logan: either stop approving new developments, and begin to heavily regulate areas like methane emissions in order to “become the low-carbon supplier of choice for the world”. Or, continue business as usual, with the result either that the “planet will overheat” or the world will decarbonise regardless, “threatening financial catastrophe for the US oil sector”.