US President Donald Trump is pressing forward with plans to turbo-boost America's carbon economy by slashing environmental regulations and opening up millions of acres of protected federal lands to development by oil, gas and coal interests.
But while independent economists cast doubt on Trump's ability to revive the coal industry, American crude oil production and exports may hit fresh records under his administration — so long as prices stay firm.
Oil exports from the United States are booming, with volumes exceeding a million barrels a day in February. Some government and private forecasts now suggest North America will begin exporting more energy than it imports in less than a decade — in what would be a fundamental shift for the U.S. role in global markets.
"If the Trump administration opens up all federal lands, we could see a significant increase in oil," said Robert Godby, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming and director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy. "But only if international prices don't suddenly collapse again. And that's a big if, because that's out of our control."
To be sure, economists believe market forces will be the determining factor of US oil output, including both global prices and the cost of drilling. But as president, Trump "will encourage oil development, permit pipelines, reduce corporate profit taxes, and generally make US oil more competitive," wrote analysts at ESAI Energy LLC in a research note.
This focus on boosting American oil comes alongside a reversal of Obama-era initiatives to counter climate change, including plans to slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency to $6.1 billion from $8 billion and reduce staff to 12,000 from 15,000,
according to recent
press reports, while pulling back from a policy to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Unleashing a fresh gusher of American crude would help push the planet closer to exceeding the global "carbon budget," or the amount of carbon dioxide that can enter the atmosphere before temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — a point at which, scientists say, truly bad things are more likely to happen.
"The fact is there's more oil on Earth than we can produce, if we don't want to cook the planet," said energy economist Philip Verleger, president of the consultancy PKVerliger. "We're going to have a situation where most people who still have oil get into a race to produce it, before there's no room for it. From an environmental point of view this is horrible — really horrible."
In order to keep global temperature increase below 2C, the world can continue to produce greenhouse gases at current rates for about 20 years from 2017, according to a recent paper by the Global Carbon Project, a research group that releases an annual publication tracking carbon emissions. The time limit will be shorter if carbon emissions rise.
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Trump's energy plan, posted to the White House web site, cites an estimated "$50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own."
The document claims that reversing Obama-era climate and energy policies could boost US wages by $30 billion over 7 years — although it makes no mention of renewable energy, where jobs are growing, or of climate change.
About 43 percent of America's 29 billion barrels of oil reserves lie in territory controlled by the federal government, according to data from the US Bureau of Land Management. As of 2014, there were 113 million acres of onshore federal lands open for oil and gas development, with 166 million acres off limits.
Trump's point man on the question of opening federal lands to energy producers will be Ryan Zinke, the former congressman from Montana who was approved by the Senate Wednesday to become US Secretary of the Interior in a 68-to-31 vote.
Zinke will oversee a department managing one-fifth of the surface area of the United States, and has a record of opposing the sale of federal lands while supporting fossil fuel development on them. He has said he believes humanity has "an influence" on climate change, but environmentalists spoke out against his confirmation.
Trump campaigned hard on bringing back coal mining jobs, and his "America First Energy Plan" pledges support for coal, gas, and oil indiscriminately.
But even in pure economic terms, Trump's plan appears to be at odds with itself.
Supporting both coal and natural gas is a contradiction, economists say, because the two compete as a fuel source for electricity generation.
Cheaper, cleaner natural gas poses a bigger threat to coal than the Obama-era regulations Trump has vowed to repeal, according to economists.
"The 'war on coal' wasn't declared by the Obama administration — it was declared by natural gas," said Godby. "The one thing I'd bet money on is that there won't be a renaissance in coal."
"The president has committed to embracing shale gas," Adele Morris, senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution, told a recent forum on Trump's energy policies in Washington DC. "That's going to do nothing but reinforce the low price of gas and its effect on coal as its primary competitor in the power market."
Oil, however, may be another story.
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American crude oil production nearly doubled in the decade before Trump took office, thanks largely to advanced production techniques like fracking, in which drillers blast sand and chemical-laced water into tight rock formations in order to unlock oil or natural gas in places like Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota, and Montana.
As a result, under former President Barack Obama, the United States became the world's top producer of combined oil and natural gas — well ahead of Russia or Saudi Arabia.
US oil production dipped after global prices collapsed in 2014, but has been rising again in the wake of a recent production cut by OPEC, the group of oil exporting countries that includes Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Days after Trump became president, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecast US crude oil production would rise from 8.9 million barrels per day in 2016 to 9.0 million barrels per day in 2017, before rising further to 9.5 million barrels per day in 2018.
The EIA, America's government energy statistics agency, said in January that the United States could be exporting more energy than it imports by 2026 — or sooner if prices rise. The US has been a net energy importer since 1953.
Oil major ExxonMobil recently forecast that North American energy exports will surpass imports by 2025.
American crude oil exports were banned for 40 years following an Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s that raised fears about energy dependence. But the shale production revolution of the past decade finally spurred Washington to end the moratorium in December 2015 — prompting a surge in sales abroad.
In January, Goldman Sachs said that the US was sending more crude oil and refined products to Latin America than it was receiving for the first time.
While a great deal depends on market forces and the details of policy, this much appears certain: The Trump administration intends to do its utmost to boost American fossil fuels, and has shown little inclination to limit the resulting greenhouse gasses. Taken together, those policies present a significant new challenge to international efforts to combat climate change.
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