July 19, 2016 Categories: Climate Change Fossil Fuels

Enough Already: No New Leases for Unburnable Carbon on Public Lands [UPDATED]

The Department of the Interior is required to manage public lands, including the coal, oil, and gas they contain, “to benefit Americans now and in the future.” Right now, Interior is beginning to look at how to reform elements of its federal coal program. A new report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative has analyzed the coal program in the context of what it means for our climate, and the conclusion is clear: Interior should make the moratorium on new coal leases permanent.

UPDATE: Read Our Full Comment to the Department of Interior Here

The lands Interior manages include our national parks, which are celebrating their centennial, and which exemplify the idea of managing natural resources for the benefit of both current and future generations. When it comes to fossil energy resources, by contrast, Interior’s actions have primarily benefited fossil fuel companies. Now the agency has the chance to change course and get it right. It is becoming abundantly clear that going forward, this means keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Protecting Our Climate Is More Important than Subsidizing Coal

Earlier this year Interior Secretary Sally Jewell directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct a systematic review of its coal leasing program, and put a moratorium on new coal leases in the interim – an important step toward improving the management of our fossil fuel resources. The Department has asked for public comment on what should be included in this review by July 28th.

A central feature of the review should be to examine the coal program in the context of the climate goal the United States – and more than 170 other countries – adopted in the Paris Agreement to determine what, if any, level of coal production from public lands is compatible with holding global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

UnburnableCarbonNextGen Climate America asked Carbon Tracker to rigorously examine this question. The results are in and the answer is clear: If we are serious about limiting global warming to well below 2ºC, no new federal coal leases will be needed as coal ceases to be a major source of electricity in America. In fact, we have already leased more coal than we can afford to burn.

The obvious conclusion is that the coal moratorium needs to be made permanent. For existing and past leases, Interior needs to enforce the law requiring mining companies to contemporaneously reclaim disturbed land to functional pre-mining conditions, and charge royalties that reflect the full social cost of extracting and burning coal rather than leaving it in the ground.

Our Lands Are More Valuable Intact

Coal is not the only fossil fuel found on federal land and beneath federal waters. Interior should put a moratorium on all fossil fuel leases while it conducts a parallel review of the on- and off-shore oil and gas leasing programs. Management decisions of all fossil fuels owned by the American public should be subject to a climate test:  Are they consistent with our carbon reduction goals and our international climate commitments? If not, the fossils should be left in the ground.climate test

In the meantime, we know already that we have more fossil fuel reserves than we can afford to burn, so certain special places, such as the Arctic and the Atlantic, should be put permanently off limits to fossil fuel development.

The United States Department of Interior is responsible for the stewardship of 500 million acres of public lands, 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, and 1.7 billion acres of the offshore Outer Continental Shelf. The areas Interior manages are responsible for almost 15 percent of America’s natural gas production, more than 20 percent of our oil production, and over 40 percent of our coal production.

While there may have once been an argument for maximizing fossil fuel production on public lands to power America’s economy, that time has long since passed. Americans are presently bearing the costs of federally-subsidized fossil fuel production in the form of toxic gases leaked into our air, oil spilled into our ocean, and coal “overburden” dumped into our streams. And we are not even getting fair market value for our resources, according to a recent report from the Council of Economic Advisors.

Meanwhile, nothing could threaten future Americans more than climate change, driven primarily by dumping billions of tons of carbon from fossil fuel reservoirs into our atmosphere, including those managed by the Department of Interior. The bitter irony is that climate change threatens to undermine the integrity of the very national parks Interior is supposed to protect. As President Obama pointed out on a recent visit to Yosemite National Park,

Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers at Glacier National Park.  No more Joshua Trees at Joshua Tree National Park.  Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, and at some point could even threaten icons like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

The Department of Interior has a profound responsibility to manage our resources in the public interest. As month after month smashes global temperature records and citizens suffer the consequences of climate change in unprecedented floods, droughts, and wildfires, it is past time for the Secretary of Interior to ensure that all the Department’s decisions reflect the reality of the 21st Century – not the 19th Century. It’s time for the federal government to get out of the fossil fuel business and focus on the climate protection business: responsible renewable energy development and sequestering carbon in fossil fuels, soils, and trees.

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