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Quantitative Easing for the Planet

Carla Skandier

Carla Skandier

Manager, Climate and Energy Program at The Democracy Collaborative more

Environment & Energy Money & Banking Public Planning

Keeping Carbon in the Ground & Dissolving Climate Opposition

Across the political spectrum, conventional wisdom holds that technology and finance remain the greatest obstacles to moving society beyond fossil fuel dependency. Yet, neither is the real reason why progress on climate action has stalled for decades. Solar applications alone have the technical potential to provide 100 times more electricity than the United States currently consumes, as concluded by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2012.1 In the world’s richest nation, the same one that created trillions of dollars to save banks between 2008 and 2014, financing is not the problem either.2 The United States can wield its sovereign monetary power to finance and encourage investment in non-extractive energy projects. Why, then, do oil and gas companies still seek new reserves, governments still license dangerous infrastructure, banks still finance carbon-intensive projects, and investors still embrace fossil fuel companies?

The short answer is that our government has no interest in going after the fossil fuel industry, the source of the climate mess. Call it dependency on corporations to sustain a “healthy” economy or call it pure political oligarchy, the reality is that governments bend over backwards to help this industry. At best, politicians and officials find ways to deflect attention from root causes, focusing on only one side of the climate equation: demand. Demand-side initiatives aim to decrease our use of fossil fuel products by, for example, giving tax breaks to companies that make more efficient light bulbs or by supporting renewables. By free market logic, decreased demand for fossil fuel equals a decrease in supply so focusing on demand-side initiatives is the “logical” way to advance climate action while not directly confronting the fossil fuel industry.

But is it really? First and foremost, ours is not a free market. Beyond that, we lack the time to use only indirect measures to keep carbon in the ground, and we lack the “carbon budget” needed to allow fossil fuel companies to continue to lock-in assets and infrastructure. Real solutions to the unfolding climate crisis must include the supply-side of the climate equation. As time runs out for mitigating the worst that is yet to come, pace will have to equal scale. Without undermining all-important complementary state and local initiatives, we need to reclaim political will at the highest level: the federal government.

Untangling Government Through the Federal Reserve (and Quantitative Easing)

Fossil fuel companies’ domineering political influence is the real problem here. Oil and gas industry lead the energy and natural resources sector in both campaign contributions and lobbying expenses.3 Add these activities to the mingling of personnel between the energy industry and government agencies4 —which both amplify the potential for regulatory capture and back-room negotiations, it makes crystal clear how entangled public officials and fossil fuel interests are. “Something must be done as a matter of urgency to keep unburnable carbon in the ground—in spite of and indeed because of the political power of the fossil fuel companies.”5 To get the government to serve all the people once again, we need to dismantle this powerful roadblock to an environmentally viable energy system and have a plan for managing this industry’s decline. Strong regulations just won’t do it. If reserves stay largely under private control, the regulatory approach would be too complicated and time-consuming. Unchecked, fossil fuel companies’ opposition machinery could hold back progress indefinitely.

The complexity of the energy transition makes stalling all too easy. Since 85 percent of the known fossil fuel reserves need to remain unburned, we must figure out how best to use the other 15 percent to support a clean equitable energy transition.6 With reserves placed in many different hands, and with diverse private interests at play, this already tough question becomes harder to answer. Even if we could surmount the corporate roadblock, government would still have trouble effectively and independently choosing the industry’s winners and losers.

The most effective, and timely, way to untangle the paralyzing relationship between government and industry is through a federal buyout of the fossil fuel companies that control these noxious assets. And how would that work? In brief, the federal government would acquire 51 percent or more of the shares of such major US-based, publicly-traded fossil fuel companies as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips. By securing the control over these companies’ decisions, the federal government would shift majority control of fossil fuel reserves away from profit-driven, short-minded shareholders to the public interest, winding down production and locking up the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground—all while deflating fossil fuel companies undue political influence.

The most effective, and timely, way to untangle the paralyzing relationship between government and industry is through a federal buyout of the fossil fuel companies that control these noxious assets.

Skeptics may question the need for such a drastic initiative. But practitioners and scholars are once again showing that the belief that private ownership is inherently superior to public ownership “remains hotly contested.”7 Relying mainly on private interests to meet people’s basic needs and find solutions to social and environmental illnesses has proven especially wrongheaded in our approach to energy and the environment. By any reckoning, 20th Century society saw material quality-of-life improve greatly thanks to the services and products provided by fossil fuel companies. But such gains didn’t come without sacrifices. On top of inevitable accidents, many dangerous spills were allowed to happen on grounds that it’s more profitable to pay for damages later than to prevent them now, and owners were allowed to walk away from numerous wells and sites leaving remediation and decommissioning procedures and costs to the next generation.8 Other deceptive tactics deployed to seed and fan doubt about climate change, including Exxon’s efforts to spread misinformation by emphasizing climate uncertainty along with other industry-wide coordinated deception campaigns, disqualify these extraction companies for the task ahead.9

This sorry record shows that we cannot transform fossil fuel producers quickly enough; instead our best chance is for the government to intervene in the form of nationalization. If government controls fossil fuel reserves, extraction decisions will not be made in lobbying wars and in closed-door negotiations. Instead, decisions will center on what really matters: emissions, resource intensity, and how to mitigate social impacts on low-income people, workers, and communities. If we don’t have the luxury of time and carbon budgets to give fossil fuel producers another chance to serve their customers’ best interests, the remaining option is to become their bosses. With the fossil fuel industry out of the way, the government would be able to start the real work of rationally planning and implementing an orderly transition plan that marries the wind down of fossil fuel production with the ramp up of renewable energy, without leaving anyone behind.

Unusual Suspect: The Federal Reserve Bank’s Role in Mitigating Climate Change

Without the political spine to implement even simpler market-based mechanisms, how will government ever be energized to take over fossil fuel companies? Quite simply, it might have no other option. Many fear that the fossil fuel sector could be instigating the next financial crisis. In 2008, the US economy neared collapse when the mortgage market was overestimated. The same peril is mounting again, but this time in the shape of fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure that will no longer be needed—and so won’t provide the expected financial returns. Fear of stranding assets in this way has grown among financial regulators and investors.10 As nations committed to limiting temperature increases to “well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursu[ing] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,”11 environmental regulations across the world have since tightened and civil society has started to revoke some of these organizations’ social license through growing lawsuits, divestment movements, and protests. If these actions succeed even partially, reserves and supply infrastructures will be retired “prematurely,” stranding vast fossil fuel assets and inviting market chaos.

Estimates around the size of the fossil fuel threat in the global financial market vary widely. The highest number so far, presented by CitiGroup in 2015, is US$100 trillion12 —significantly more than the total losses from the 2008 financial crisis.13 Mirroring the previous crisis, both the responsible sector and millions of workers and companies outside the fossil fuel market would feel the pain. Bank of England’s (BoE) Governor Mark Carney contends that up to one-third of global wealth may be at risk due to fossil fuel stranded assets,14 including that of pension funds that hold the retirement of teachers, veterans, and nurses.

Companies have brushed off these concerns because they don’t believe that countries will adopt policies to prevent climate change. This rationale has hardened into doctrine in the United States, where fossil fuel-friendly policies and market conditions remain the norm. As a result, day-in and day-out the number of at-risk assets in the financial markets only grows, with companies further exploring and adding new reserves to their portfolio so they can cash out as much money as possible. By 2025, fossil fuel companies betting against climate action are expected to waste another US$1.6 trillion globally in fossil fuel infrastructure.15 Clearly, market trauma is in store “irrespective of whether or not new climate policies are adopted.”16 The United States, a fossil fuel exporter and late adopter of climate policy, stands to be a clear loser in this dangerous game of betting against the planet’s future.

As it did in 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank (Fed) could play a crucial role in diffusing this impending catastrophe, this time in a preventive and positive way. The century-old agency has under its current functions to ensure the stability of the financial system and minimize systemic risks through active monitoring and engagement.17 The systemic threat imposed by irresponsible fossil fuel companies should be enough to trigger the Fed to intervene now. Other central banks around the world have already started to act on their responsibility to better understand and try to avoid a financial crisis caused by the fossil fuel industry’s stranded assets. The most vocal among central banks is the Bank of England. Since 2015, when BoE Governor Carney alarmed investors in the famous speech “Breaking the Tragedy of the Horizon,” the bank has started a research agenda, a working group, and a coalition with seven other central banks to clarify their role in addressing systemic environmental risks.18

Besides anticipating and managing threats to the financial system, the Fed wields the monetary tool needed to pull off a federal buyout of top fossil fuel majors without burdening taxpayers or fueling inflation. Its monetary sovereignty over the creation of money enables this agency to literally create money out of thin air (aka computer keystrokes). The fancy term for this process, “quantitative easing” (QE), has two parts: “quantitative” in relation to the large amount of money that can be created and “easing” in reference to the ultimate goal of the process—help the economy through money injection. This tool was used during the latest financial crisis by the Fed, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, and other central banks. In the US alone, the Fed created over US$3.5 trillion between 2008 and 2014 to bail out bankers and financial institutions—without materializing the traditional concern of runaway inflation.19 Now it’s time for the Fed to act on behalf of people and planet.

Strategic Breakthroughs and Outcomes of a Federal Buyout

The potential benefits of a QE-financed federal buyout are manifold. Besides neutralizing fossil fuel opposition to climate action, which few other meaningful supply-side proposals could do, a federal buyout has two other selling points. It would leapfrog critical shortcomings of standard supply-side initiatives—namely, lock-in infrastructure and green paradox—and clear the path for a just energy transition for fossil fuel workers and communities.

Leapfrogging Lock-in Infrastructure and the Green Paradox

Once certain infrastructure is in place, decrease in demand and other changes in market conditions alone won’t stop production. This so-called infrastructure lock-in particularly dogs the fossil fuel industry, where the bulk of investment capital is sunk in the project’s first years to build needed structures and facilities. Once infrastructure is in place, “producers will ignore sunk costs and continue to produce as long as the market price is sufficient to cover the marginal cost (but not the average cost) of production.”20 Both well-established infrastructure and new projects are subject to infrastructure lock-ins. Investors might, for instance, invest in a new coal mine if convinced that “the short-term value of the profits that can be earned under current policy settings …[exceed] the long-term (risk-adjusted) cost of detrimental policy change.”21 Policy uncertainty thus reinforces this climate-hostile rationale.

The green paradox occurs when companies accelerate fossil fuel production in anticipation of future policy and market trends.22 Fearing asset devaluation, producers speed up extraction and production to cash out profit as quickly as possible. Like infrastructure lock-in, the green paradox also invites greenhouse gas emissions and severely diminishes our chances to plan and implement an orderly transition to renewables in two ways. First, it shortens the already scarce time we have left to decrease fossil fuel production and ramp up renewable infrastructure. Second, it deepens fossil fuel dependency as people continue to buy carbon–intensive assets, such as cars and far-away homes, without taking climate change impacts—physical and financial—into consideration.23

Unlike either regulatory demand or such supply-side proposals as carbon pricing, ending fossil fuels’ subsidies, production quotas, etc., a federal buyout of fossil fuel companies would skirt both infrastructure lock-ins and the green paradox. That’s because producers would no longer financially benefit from short, medium, or long-term fossil-fuel production. Shortening the renewable-energy investment gap, a federal takeover would also send a clear signal that the future is renewable, channeling investors’ decisions away from fossil fuels and toward projects aligned with the goals of a 1.5° Celsius society.

The proposal’s true game-changer, however, is making climate action attractive to fossil fuel companies facing endless negotiation and litigation. As an alternative to “produce all now or lose most later” (catchwords often used to tar climate policies), a federal buyout affords a reasonable exit option to fossil fuel companies by giving investors a return without having to keep up production. Given the future prospects of fossil fuel companies’ stocks, investors might even take legal action on the basis of a breach of fiduciary duty if managers refuse to sell their companies for a fair enterprise value. This open door is a key way out of our current roadblock and a way to bring investors and companies on board sooner rather than later.

Clearing the Path for a Just Transition for Fossil Fuel Workers and Communities

A buyout proposal also potentially allows government to devise and activate a comprehensive, orderly transition plan that marries fossil fuel production with renewable capacity rise, all while leaving no dependent worker or community behind.

As it is now, the private companies that lead present and future energy generation treat workers and communities as the inevitable collateral damage of misguided judgments and maximization of private interests. General Electric, for example, in late 2017 announced 12,000 job cuts in its fossil-fuel-heavy power department, a decision made to right-size the business amid a decline in fossil fuel use. Just two years earlier, the company had decided to double its inventory of large coal turbines.24

Treating those who helped build the 20th century American society as collateral damages isn’t only immoral, but also economically damaging. This callous approach could also undermine a successful transition to clean energy. The recent US Presidential election made it clear how easy and crowd-pleasing it is to make promises to revive dying industries even when the facts and larger context don’t augur well. Often, when company towns vie to remain standing, last-minute decisions set off a wave of job losses and revenue decline that can damage or ruin the community’s structure. From a climate perspective, throwing away communities translates into “empty houses, half-empty schools, roads, hospitals, public buildings, etc., [that we must] rebuild in a different location, with all the associated carbon costs.”25

Federal government can help keep “right-sizing” decisions from decimating communities and local jobs while it also speeds the transition away from fossil fuel use. Its role should be securing fossil fuel reserves through a federal buyout of major companies and implementing a cohesive, orderly, and just transition plan that supports, builds on, and lifts workers and communities along the way. And that plan must leave room for those directly affected to participate in and guide a future away from the extractive economy.

Workers’ New Roles and Meaning

An undeniable consequence of de-carbonization will be job losses in the fossil fuel sector. With 1.1 million workers employed in carbon-intensive electric power generation and fuels in 2017,26 government must figure out a way to keep these people employed. The good news is that the energy transition requires a lot of workers. An investment of US$ 200 billion annually in renewable energy and energy efficiency, as estimated by economist Robert Pollin and others, could create 4.2 million jobs in the US, a net gain of 2.7 million when jobs lost from the fossil fuel sector are counted.27 The bad news is that matching new jobs and displaced workers will not be simple. Many jobs will appear in new locations and require new expertise.

That said, creating a comprehensive, coordinated federal transition plan from the get-go can prevent unnecessary and permanent disruption of fossil fuel workers and their families. Looking at lessons learned from coal communities in six countries, researchers concluded that failure to anticipate, accept, and prepare for the transition is a key difference between securing workers a continuous path in workforce and falling into long-term unemployment.28

The transition plan’s first goal must be to avoid large-scale, last-minute layoffs. Quite simply, workers leaving current carbon-intensive work need a safe passage into jobs with a future. The way could be paved with a clear climate policy so young adults could compare the odds of specializing in various fossil fuel sectors and workers already employed by the industry could get trained for new roles.

But the government must also adopt “emergency measures” in anticipation of the disruptive impacts the transition will inevitably have on some workers and their families. A standard income for workers and families, for instance, would enable them to weather surprises or changes without compromising their health and the assets built by their hard work. Other forward-looking policies, such as relocation assistance and counselling, could also be considered.29

The government can also guarantee full-employment to workers, stabilizing their income during the transition and preserving the meaning that employment provides to life for many. Meaningful labor is particularly important for fossil fuel workers, whose jobs provide a living and also an inheritance maintained over generations. In that vein, government should also find ways to keep at least some workers in the “same” industry, albeit with an evolved purpose and vision. Instead of coal mining, for instance, why couldn’t at least some former miners continue reporting to the same locations, with the same company, to revitalize the compromised land and waters for the benefit of their communities and neighbors? After all, workers who helped build and maintain fossil fuel projects are often best qualified to decommission facilities, clean up, and otherwise revitalize old sites.

Communities’ Diversification and Economic Renewal

In many cases, communities across the country will need to diversify and renew their economy. No one knows better than each community how to determine and evaluate what comes next. Local people are the experts at identifying their historical, cultural, and available potential and capacity. As explored in “An Anchor Strategy for the Energy Transition,” such anchor institutions as hospitals, universities, and public departments have a unique opportunity and powerful capacity to lift their communities and people both sooner and later.

But what happens in the many small rural communities that have depended heavily on the fossil fuel industry but lack anchor institutions or alternative industries to support their transition? Here, government must intervene to help communities feeling cut off at the knees with a robust plan to stabilize their economic base. One of many options is to identify and recognize affected communities as Opportunity Zones, an economic development tool created in 2017 to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities.30 Investors, including former fossil fuel backers looking for new opportunities, would be encouraged through tax preferences to put their money in these areas to support economic diversification and equitable opportunities for displaced workers.

Another suggestion builds on the idea that fossil fuel companies, now under public control, could be transformed into “environmental revitalization” enterprises. Some examples show how. With a lignite (brown coal) economy in full force in 1985, East Germany saw both production and workforce in the sector decline by almost two-thirds within a decade.31 The City of Leipzig, the region industrial center, alone lost 100,000 people in a ten-year timeframe. Looking to provide a brighter future to the region, the government, through the federally-owned Lausitz and Middle Germany Mining Administrative Company (LMBV), started the revitalization process of former open mines (employing 20,000 people along the way).32 The result: the region, the “largest artificial lakeland” in Europe, is today a tourist destination with 26 lakes providing a variety of recreational activities, including canoeing, kayaking scuba diving, triathlon competitions, restaurants and party spaces.33 Although the region’s redevelopment is more complex than exposed here, the revitalization of “once one of the dirtiest areas in East Germany” into a pristine landscape of “soaring pine forests, glistening lakes and immaculate asphalt cycle paths,” shows that providing old fossil fuel communities a new, better meaning is possible.34

Conclusion: 51 Percent Solution for the Climate Crisis

There is no easy fix that would free us from the climate mess we are in, but a federal takeover of major fossil fuel companies in the first links of the supply chain could turn the tide. If fossil fuel reserves were under popular control, their future could be decided for and by the people, instead of by profit-driven, short-sighted shareholders. Only democratic government can ensure the planned wind-down of fossil fuel production in accordance with climate safety goals. With room for private profit cut out of fossil fuel extraction and production, the powerful entrenched opposition of the energy sector would crumble. And with government and fossil fuel industry interests untangled, complementary climate initiatives could be adopted and implemented. So could a cohesive, orderly, and just transition plan that leaves no one behind. The transition to a sustainable, renewable, non-extractive economy requires nothing less.

  • 1 Although from 2012, the study’s conclusions remain true today. Anthony Lopez et al., “US Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2012.
  • 2 “Home / Monetary Policy / Credit and Liquidity Programs and the Balance Sheet,” Federal Reserve, accessed August 3, 2018,
  • 3 “Influence & Lobbying / Interest Groups / Energy, Natural Resources / Summary,” Center for Responsive Politics, accessed July 20, 2018,
  • 4 Trump’s cabinet appointees are few of the many examples throughout the political sphere. David Roberts, “Meet the fossil fuel all-stars Trump has appointed to his administration,” Vox, June 14, 2017, accessed July 20, 2018,
  • 5 Gar Alperovitz et al., “Systemic Crisis and Systemic Change in the United States in the 21st Century,” The Democracy Collaborative, September 2016.
  • 6 Greg Muttitt, “The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production,” Oil Change International, 2016.
  • 7 Thomas M. Hanna, Our Common Wealth: The Return of Public Ownership in the United States (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2018).
  • 8 Colorado alone has 260 “orphan” sites in the shape of inactive oil and gas wells. Dan Elliott, “Colorado to accelerate cleanup of ‘orphaned’ oil, gas wells,” Associated Press, July 19, 2018, accessed July 20, 2018,’orphaned’-oil,-gas-wells.
  • 9 David Hasemyer and John Cushman Jr., “Exxon Sowed Doubt About Climate Science for Decades by Stressing Uncertainty,” InsideClimate News, October 22, 2015, accessed July 23, 2018,; Kathy Mulvey and Seth Shuman, “The Climate Deception Dossiers: Internal Fossil Fuel Industry Memos Reveal Decades of Corporate Disinformation,” Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2015.
  • 10 Mark Carney, “Breaking the Tragedy of the Horizon,” speech given at Lloyd’s of London, London, UK, September 29, 2015; “The Price of Climate Change: Global Warming’s Impact on Portfolios,” BlackRock, October 2015, accessed July 8, 2018,
  • 11 UNFCCC Paris Agreement (2015), article 2(1)(a).
  • 12 Jason Channel et al., “Energy Darwinism II: Why a Low Carbon Future Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth,” CitiGroup, 2015.
  • 13 Al Yoon, “Total Global Losses From Financial Crisis: $15 Trillion,” The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2012, accessed July 23, 2018,
  • 14 Of equity and fixed assets. Mark Carney, “Breaking the Tragedy of the Horizon,” speech given at Lloyd’s of London, London, UK, September 29, 2015.
  • 15 When considering a 50 percent change to stay below 2 Celsius temperature increase. Andrew Grant, “Mind the Gap: The $1.6 trillion energy transition risk,” Carbon Tracker Initiative, 2018,
  • 16 J.-F. Mercure et al., “Macroeconomic impact of stranded fossil fuel assets,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 8, 2018.
  • 17 “About the Fed,” Federal Reserve, accessed on July 23, 2018,
  • 18 “Quarterly Bulletin 2017 Q2,” Bank of England, accessed July 20, 2018,; Network for Greening the Financial System, Banque de France, accessed July 20, 2018,
  • 19 Neil Irwin, “Quantitative Easing Is Ending. Here’s What It Did, in charts,” New York Times, October 29, 2014, accessed August 3, 2018,
  • 20 Fergus Green and Richard Denniss, “Cutting with both arms of the scissors: the economic and political case for restrictive supply-side climate policies,” Climatic Change, 2018,
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Hans-Werner Sinn, The Green Paradox: A Supply-Side Approach to Global Warming (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012).
  • 23 Karen C. Seto et al., “Carbon Lock-in: Types, Causes, and Policy Implications,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 41, November 2016.
  • 24 Carla Santos Skandier, “When Companies Deny Climate Science Their Workers Pay,” Truthout, December 28, 2017, accessed July 23, 2018
  • 25 Gar Alperovitz et al., “Systemic Crisis and Systemic Change in the United States in the 21st Century,” The Democracy Collaborative, September 2016.
  • 26US Energy and Employment Report,” National Association of State Energy Officials and Energy Futures Initiative, 2018, accessed July 23, 2018,
  • 27 Robert Pollin et al., “Green Growth: A US Program for Controlling Climate Change and Expanding Job Opportunities,” Political Economy Research Institute and Center for American Progress, 2014.
  • 28 Bent Caldecott, Oliver Sartor, Thomas Spencer, “Lessons from previous ‘Coal Transitions’ High-level Summary for Decision-makers,” IDDRI and Climate Strategies, 2017,
  • 29 For more information see Fergus Green, “Transition Policy for Climate Change Mitigation: Who, What, Why and How,” The Crawford School of Public Policy Australian National University, CCEP Working Paper 1805, May 2018.
  • 30 Opportunity zones were added to the Tax Code by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. For more information see “Opportunity Zones,” Economic Innovation Group, accessed August 3, 2018,
  • 31 Philipp Herpich, Hanna Brawers, Pao-Yu Oei, “A historical case study of previous coal transitions in Germany,” IDDRI and Climate Strategies, 2018.
  • 32 Matt Finch, “Urban life after coal: Leipzig,” Coal Transitions, March 23, 2017, accessed July 27, 2018,
  • 33 Ibid.; Paul Sullivan, “East Germany’s old mines transformed into new lake district,” The Guardian, September 17, 2016, accessed July 27, 2018,
  • 34 Ibid.
Carla Skandier

Carla Skandier

Manager, Climate and Energy Program at The Democracy Collaborative more

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