The era of oil and gas expansion is ending

Early Tuesday the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for the end of new fossil fuel development — something Earthworks called for several years ago.

The IEA was created by developed economies in response to the 1973 oil shock to secure continued oil supplies for a global economy dependent on oil. It is perhaps the most consulted and international authority on energy of all sorts. For the IEA to now say “no new oil” is a watershed moment in the fight to avoid climate catastrophe and hopefully the moment the end of Big Oil becomes widely understood to be inevitable. 

It is important to state clearly what the IEA announcement means in practical policy terms:

In the judgement of the world’s most significant independent energy authority, to hit the climate targets that consensus climate science has established as necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming, we cannot regulate new oil and gas extraction, we must stop new oil and gas extraction. As Energy Monitor described it, “The idea of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ was killed off today.”

In the United States this has huge implications for both federal and state policies. Some of the work required to end the era of fossil fuels can be carried out by President Biden and Governors from oil and gas producing states  can do on their own, and some will require Congress and state legislators to act on climate.

President Biden has the authority to  rein in oil and gas climate pollution without Congressional action, including —

On the campaign trail, candidate Biden promised to end new permitting — that is, new extraction — of oil and gas on public lands. Since becoming President, he hasn’t done that — despite mistaken news reports to the contrary. Instead he has put a temporary pause on new leasing. If a company already has a lease, the federal government is still permitting new extraction on those leases. Because the oil and gas industry is sitting on a stockpile of unused leases, the practical impact of Biden’s leasing pause on new extraction has been zero. To fulfill his promise he needs to make the leasing ban permanent and stop permitting on existing leases.

  • Use the full force of the Clean Air Act to establish regulatory safeguards reducing oil and gas production’s methane emissions 65% by 2025: Soon after taking office, President Biden announced he would act to cut methane pollution from oil and gas production, and his Environmental Protection Agency has recently started the process to do so that’s expected to result in a proposed rulemaking this September.

    Although the EPA Administrator Michael Regan is clearly committed to issuing rules stronger than what was in place during the Obama administration, they would only reduce oil and gas production’s methane emissions by 20%. And that’s not sufficient given the severity of the climate crisis. Neither is 65%, but it is what is doable under the Clean Air Act as it is written today.

None of the above will end new oil and gas extraction on private lands — and that’s the majority of oil and gas. In order to do that, Congress would have to pass new legislation that bans new permitting, prohibits the use of hydraulic fracturing, closes loopholes in our bedrock environmental laws that enable drilling, or passes climate legislation that creates a just transition to a renewable energy economy.  Passing meaningful climate legislation or legislation that ratchets down the use of fossil fuels is next to impossible with the current Congress, which increases pressure on President Biden and the states to take the maximum action available to them. There is some hope to end fossil fuel subsidies, which President Biden has proposed as part of his American Jobs Plan. If Congress acts, this could be the first legislative nail in the coffin of the oil and gas industry. 

The President at the Earth Day Climate Summit, and some states — like Colorado’s climate roadmap — are making increasingly bold commitments to reduce climate pollution. As the IEA makes clear, for those commitments to be meaningful they must be matched with real action, including ending new fossil fuel extraction.