Decarbonizing Paradox: How the U.S. Reduced Emissions Amid Surging Oil Production

Introduction – Carbon Reduction And Oil Production Increase

The United States is one of the largest carbon emitting countries in the world in aggregate and on a per person basis, although not on a per GDP dollar basis. The United States has recently witnessed a remarkable decrease in carbon emissions, driven by a multitude of factors. Intriguingly, this decline in emissions has occurred alongside a near doubling of domestic oil production, largely attributable to the shale revolution.

This paradoxical situation highlights the complexities of the energy landscape and showcases the critical role of technology, policy, and market dynamics in shaping carbon emissions trajectories. As the U.S. continues to pursue a cleaner and more sustainable energy future, understanding the interplay between the drivers of emissions reductions and the expansion of oil production provides valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Data published by BP is plotted below, and is consistent with other reports on crude production trends.

British Petroleum: Statistical Review of World Energy 2022

Oil production of top 20 countries for 2011 and 2021

Examining the data shows a number of interesting observations:

  1. Overall, most countries have experienced a change in their oil production levels, with some increasing production and others decreasing.
  2. The United States experienced the most significant increase in oil production, going from 5,674,000 barrels per day in 2011 to 11,188,000 barrels per day in 2021. This is almost a 97.5% increase in oil production.
  3. Russia, the country with the highest production in 2011, saw a modest increase in oil production from 10,287,000 barrels per day in 2011 to 10,455,000 barrels per day in 2021.
  4. Venezuela experienced the most significant decrease in oil production, falling from 2,623,000 barrels per day in 2011 to just 605,000 barrels per day in 2021. This is a substantial decline of approximately 76.9%.
  5. Canada and Iraq also saw significant increases in oil production. Canada increased its production from 3,021,000 barrels per day in 2011 to 4,748,000 barrels per day in 2021, while Iraq went from 2,728,000 barrels per day in 2011 to 4,032,000 barrels per day in 2021.
  6. Some countries had relatively stable production levels with minor changes, such as Norway, Kazakhstan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  7. A few countries, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom, experienced a decline in oil production over the ten-year period.

Oil production has varied across countries from 2011 to 2021, with the United States experiencing the most substantial increase and Venezuela experiencing the most significant decrease. Some countries, like Russia, Canada, and Iraq, have increased production, while others, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom, have seen a decline.

Reasons For The Oil Production Increase In United States

The United States experienced a dramatic increase in oil production from 2011 to 2021 due to several factors

Technological advancements: The development and widespread adoption of advanced drilling technologies, such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, enabled the extraction of oil and gas from previously inaccessible or uneconomical shale rock formations. These technologies increased production efficiency and made it possible to tap into vast reserves of oil and natural gas in the United States.

Shale revolution: The aforementioned technological advancements led to the so-called “shale revolution” in the United States. This revolution unlocked vast reserves of shale oil and gas, particularly in regions such as the Bakken formation in North Dakota, the Eagle Ford formation in Texas, and the Marcellus and Utica formations in the northeastern United States. These new sources of oil significantly contributed to the increase in U.S. production.

Shale is a type of rock in which oil is trapped unlike pools accessed by traditional wells

Favorable government policies: Federal and state policies in the United States during this period were generally supportive of domestic oil and gas production. These policies included tax incentives, regulatory frameworks, and streamlined permitting processes, all of which encouraged exploration and production activities.

High oil prices: The period between 2011 and 2014 was characterized by relatively high global oil prices, which provided an economic incentive for producers to invest in domestic oil exploration and production. Although prices declined sharply after 2014, the advancements in drilling technology and efficiency allowed many U.S. producers to remain profitable even at lower price levels.

Energy independence: The United States government and private sector placed a strong emphasis on achieving energy independence and reducing reliance on foreign oil imports. This strategic goal encouraged investment in domestic oil production and the development of new resources.

Landowner rights: In the U.S., landowners generally possess the rights to the minerals beneath their property, also known as “mineral rights.” This system contrasts with many other countries, where mineral rights are owned by the state or the government.

Therefore, the dramatic increase in U.S. oil production from 2011 to 2021 can be attributed to technological advancements, the shale revolution, favorable government policies, high oil prices, land owner rights, an educated, and a strategic focus on energy independence. Other factors we don’t cover but surely play a role are the deep capital markets that make the investments possible and a very skilled and experienced labor force.

Reasons For The Paradoxical Carbon Emission Decrease

Carbon emissions in the United States have decreased overall, even with the massive increase in oil production, due to several factors:

Shift to natural gas: The shale revolution, which contributed to the increased oil production, also led to a significant increase in natural gas production. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel compared to coal, and this increased availability has resulted in a shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation. This transition has reduced the overall carbon emissions from the power sector.

Growth of renewable energy: Over the past decade, there has been a substantial increase in the deployment of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydropower, in the United States. The cost of these technologies has decreased significantly, making them more competitive with traditional fossil fuels. The growth of renewable energy has helped to reduce carbon emissions by displacing some fossil fuel-based electricity generation.

Energy efficiency improvements: There have been considerable advancements in energy efficiency across various sectors in the United States, including transportation, buildings, and industry. These improvements have resulted in lower energy consumption per unit of output or service, which in turn reduces overall carbon emissions.

Stricter emission standards and regulations: The U.S. government has implemented more stringent emission standards and regulations for vehicles and power plants in recent years. These regulations have contributed to the reduction of carbon emissions by promoting cleaner technologies and more efficient practices.

Changes in economic structure: The U.S. economy has increasingly shifted towards service and technology sectors, which generally have lower energy intensity compared to heavy industry and manufacturing. This change in the economic structure has contributed to a decrease in overall carbon emissions.

Electric vehicles: The adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) has been growing steadily in the United States, displacing gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. As the electricity grid becomes greener due to the increased share of renewable energy and natural gas, the carbon emissions associated with electric vehicles decrease as well.

Carbon Emissions Have Continued To Decrease

Despite the massive increase in oil production, overall carbon emissions have decreased in the United States due to a combination of factors. These include a shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, the growth of renewable energy, improvements in energy efficiency, stricter emission standards and regulations, changes in the economic structure, and the increasing adoption of electric vehicles.

Coal To Natural Gas Transition Likely Played The Largest Role In Carbon Reduction

While it’s challenging to pinpoint a single top factor and its precise percentage contribution to the decline in carbon emissions in the United States, the shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation is likely one of the most significant factors. The increase in natural gas production, driven by the shale revolution, provided an abundant and cost-effective supply of a cleaner-burning fuel. This shift led to a decrease in coal-fired power generation, which has historically been a major source of carbon emissions.

As the transition from coal to natural gas continues in the United States, the impact on carbon reduction is expected to be significant. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel compared to coal, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy generated. The ongoing shift from coal to natural gas in electricity generation could lead to further reductions in carbon emissions, contributing to the nation’s climate goals and enhancing overall sustainability.

Estimating the exact percentage contribution of this factor is difficult due to the interplay of various factors in the energy landscape. However, a study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggested that between 2005 and 2017, the electric power sector’s CO2 emissions in the United States decreased by 28%. Of this reduction, the shift from coal to natural gas contributed to approximately 62% of the decrease, while increased non-carbon electricity generation (renewable energy and nuclear power) contributed to 38% of the reduction.

To estimate the remaining hypothetical carbon impact in numbers (tons of CO2 per year) due to the ongoing transition from coal to natural gas, we need to consider several factors, including the current and future energy consumption mix, the efficiency of power plants, and the emissions factors of coal and natural gas.

As a rough estimate, let’s consider the following assumptions:

  1. Coal currently contributes to 10% of the energy use in the U.S.
  2. The average CO2 emissions factor for coal is approximately 2,249 lbs of CO2 per MWh (megawatt-hour) of electricity generated (source: U.S. EIA).
  3. The average CO2 emissions factor for natural gas is approximately 1,135 lbs of CO2 per MWh of electricity generated (source: U.S. EIA).

Now, let’s assume that the entire 10% of energy use from coal is replaced by natural gas. In this hypothetical scenario:

Difference in CO2 emissions factor = 2,249 lbs/MWh (coal) – 1,135 lbs/MWh (natural gas) = 1,114 lbs/MWh

To convert this difference to tons of CO2 per year, we need to know the total electricity generation in the U.S. According to the U.S. EIA, the total electricity generation in the U.S. in 2020 was approximately 4 trillion kWh.

Assuming that 10% of this generation comes from coal, the coal-generated electricity would be:

Coal-generated electricity = 4,000,000,000 MWh * 0.10 = 400,000,000 MWh

Now, we can estimate the reduction in CO2 emissions by replacing this coal-generated electricity with natural gas:

Reduction in CO2 emissions = 400,000,000 MWh * 1,114 lbs/MWh = 446,602,600,000 lbs of CO2

To convert this to tons:

Reduction in CO2 emissions = 446,602,600,000 lbs / 2,000 lbs/ton = 223,301,300 tons of CO2 per year

This estimate is a simplistic illustration of the potential carbon impact of replacing the entire 10% of energy use from coal with natural gas in the U.S.

In 2019, the United States emitted approximately 5,130 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 (source: U.S. EIA). The continued transition to natural gas would then be expected to reduce this amount by a further ~4%.

Considering the entire decline in carbon emissions across all sectors during that period, the contribution of the shift from coal to natural gas could be lower, as other factors such as energy efficiency improvements, growth of renewable energy, and stricter regulations also played a role.


The United States has experienced a significant decrease in carbon emissions in recent years, despite the substantial increase in domestic oil production fueled by the shale revolution.

This seemingly paradoxical situation can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the transition from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, the growth of renewable energy, improvements in energy efficiency, stricter emission standards and regulations, and the adoption of electric vehicles.

Looking forward, it is plausible that the decline in carbon emissions will continue, driven by ongoing advancements in clean energy technologies, supportive policy measures, and an increasing emphasis on sustainability.

While uncertainties remain, understanding the complex interplay between emissions reduction drivers and the expanding oil production landscape offers valuable insights into navigating the challenges and seizing opportunities in the pursuit of a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.

Anne Lauer
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Anna Lauer is a writer, gardener, and homesteader living in rural Wisconsin. She has written for Mother Earth News, Grit, and Hobby Farms magazines. Anna is writing a new book about growing your food for free and an ultimate guide to producing food at little to no cost. When shes not writing or gardening, Anna enjoys spending time with her husband and two young daughters.

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