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SEI working paper

Effect of government subsidies for upstream oil infrastructure on U.S. oil production and global CO<sub>2</sub> emissions

This paper quantifies the effect of federal and state subsidies on U.S. oil production, focusing on the 800+ fields that have been discovered but not yet developed, and examines the climate implications.

Michael Lazarus, Peter Erickson, Adrian Down / Published on 10 January 2017

Erickson, P., A. Down, M. Lazarus and D. Koplow (2017). Effect of government subsidies for upstream oil infrastructure on U.S. oil production and global CO2 emissions. SEI Working Paper No. 2017-02.

The United States now produces as much crude oil as ever – over 3.4 billion barrels in 2015, just shy of the 3.5 billion record set in 1970. Indeed, the U.S. has become the world’s No. 1 oil and gas producer. The oil production boom has been aided by tax provisions and other subsidies that support private investment in infrastructure for oil exploration and development. Federal tax preferences, for example, enable oil and gas producers to deduct capital expenditures faster, or at greater levels, than standard tax accounting rules typically allow, boosting investment returns.

This paper quantifies the effect of a dozen U.S. federal and state subsidies to oil production and estimates the corresponding effects on global CO2 emissions. At recent oil prices of 50 USD per barrel, subsidies push nearly half of yet-to-be-developed oil into profitability, potentially increasing U.S. oil production by almost 20 billion barrels over the next few decades. Once burned, this oil would emit 8 billion tonnes of CO2, about 1% of the world’s remaining carbon budget to keep warming under 2°C, as envisioned in the Paris Agreement. This would represent a much greater share – perhaps a quarter – of a carbon budget for U.S. oil production alone.

These findings suggest an even stronger case for subsidy reform than has been articulated to date. Not only would removing federal and state support provide a large fiscal benefit to apply to other national spending priorities; it would also demonstrate U.S. compliance with existing G20 commitments and generate substantial climate benefits as well.

Note: an updated version of this analysis was published 2 October in Nature Energy.  Major findings and conclusions are the same. Due to a somewhat different treatment of natural gas quantitites made during the peer-review process, numerical results in the updated, journal version differ slightly.

Download the working paper (PDF, 2.18MB)

Read a policy brief summarizing the findings

High-resolution versions of key figures

About SEI Working Papers

The SEI working paper series aims to expand and accelerate the availability of our research, stimulate discussion, and elicit feedback. SEI working papers are work in progress and typically contain preliminary research, analysis, findings, and recommendations.

Many SEI working papers are drafts that will be subsequently revised for a refereed journal or book. Other papers share timely and innovative knowledge that we consider valuable and policy-relevant, but which may not be intended for later publication.

SEI authors

Michael Lazarus
Michael Lazarus

Center Director


Peter Erickson

SEI Affiliated Researcher


Topics and subtopics
Energy : Fossil fuels / Climate : Fossil fuels
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