Climate bill moves forward: How it can protect wildlands

Steel Winds turbines in NewYork. Courtesy Department of Environmental Conservation.

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The Senate just took another critical step in pushing forward climate change legislation that would address impacts on our wildlands. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has now released an updated version of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733), introduced last month by her and Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., which includes crucial allocations for land preservation, habitat protection, forest health and wildlife and provides direct benefits to communities across the country.

This so-called “Chairman’s mark” is a crucial step forward to passing meaningful global warming legislation and putting America on a path toward clean energy and a more secure economy.

The impact of this bill on our public lands is likely to be substantial and wide-ranging, which is why The Wilderness Society backs the legislation and has been working with legislators to preserve and strengthen portions of it that would help wildlands adapt to changes already occurring.

The effects of global warming already are being felt on our nation’s public lands — the national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other wild lands that millions of Americans rely on for clean air, clean water, recreation and countless other benefits. Ending the free dumping of global warming pollution into the atmosphere is absolutely necessary to protecting America’s communities and its iconic wildlands for the generations to come.

A Stronger Bill

The Senate bill starts out in a stronger place than the recently passed House clean energy jobs bill:

  • The Senate bill sets a stronger 2020 target for pollution reductions at 20 percent below 2005 levels (an eight percentage point increase from the House bill).
  • It preserves EPA’s full authority to regulate global warming pollution emissions from coal plants directly, using the authority confirmed by the 2007 Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA.
  • The Senate bill’s overall cost to the average American family is, according to EPA’s just released analysis, an estimated 22 to 30 cents per day ($80 to $111 per year), or less than $10 a month. Compared to the costs of not addressing climate change this would be a true bargain.

Passage of the bill is considered necessary to holding together any successful international effort. The EPA analysis confirmed that if international emissions reduction goals set by the G8 countries are met, warming would be no more than 2°C by 2100. But without Congressional action, we simply cannot expect China or India, let alone the developing world, to set the binding targets that we ourselves are not setting.

How to Protect Wildlands

In addition to pressing for a stop to the free dumping of global warming pollution into our atmosphere, The Wilderness Society climate team is working on preserving and improving numerous elements in the Clean Jobs Act which are of particular importance to land preservation advocates, including:

  1. Managing the Land to Resist and Adapt to Warming: The Clean Energy Jobs Act matches the House-passed bill in supporting, for the first time, the creation of a national Natural Resource Adaptation strategy to respond to the impact of global warming on our biological ecosystems with substantial funding to address the current and ongoing effects of climate change on our public lands, creating jobs and reviving rural economies.
  2. Land Acquisition: One of the most viable adaptation strategies is to reconnect fragments of protected land into landscape-scale protected ecosystems that can serve as wildlife corridors and biologic stepping stones as the planet warms. Thus the contribution of this bill to the Land and Water Conservation Fund remains a key focus for The Wilderness Society. Currently we expect the bill could increase federal land acquisition funding by as much as $250 million per year after 2021 — more than double current LWCF appropriations. On a parallel track, we are working with two powerful chairmen — Senator Bingaman and Rep. Rahall — to “fully fund” the LWCF by dedicating the full $900 million it receives each year from OCS revenues to land acquisition.
  3. Biomass: The House bill prevents power generators from using certain public lands as fuel sources for generating electricity . The bill makes clear, for example, that any harvest of the following would not count towards meeting the Renewable Energy Standard goals: materials from the National Wilderness Preservation System, the Wild and Scenic River system, Inventoried Roadless Areas, old growth or mature forest stands, the National Landscape Conservation System. We are working diligently to preserve these hard-won protections in the Senate.
  4. Offset requirements: Both the Senate and the House bills rely heavily on a process that allows emitters (utilities, manufacturers) whose pollution is theoretically “capped” to emit above the cap by buying “offsets” in uncapped sectors, such as forestry and agriculture. Offsets reduce the cost of compliance but raise the risk of emitting even more carbon pollution because they are inherently difficult to verify, manage and police. We are working to ensure that the carbon mitigation promised through an offset project is real. Moreover, both the Obama administration and some in the Senate are interested in allowing private carbon offset projects to be located on public lands in return for payments to the land management agencies. Neither the Interior Department nor the USDA has adopted a formal policy on this question, and there are no regulations governing when this makes sense and when it doesn’t. The Wilderness Society is pressing for a public, transparent vetting of this issue before land managers encumber the public estate with very long-term (100 year) contracts at the request of private project developers.
  5. Transmission: We are working to ensure that any efforts to reform transmission policy on public lands includes environmental safeguards and greenhouse gas performance standards so that the new grid supports, and does not compromise, good climate policy.
  6. Brownfields: We continue to work with the Conference of Mayors and key Senators to incorporate preferences in the renewable electric standard for new generation on “old land” — already-disturbed brownfield sites. While the Senate has yet to incorporate the language we are seeking, we are hopeful that we can include this important priority through a floor amendment.

Passage of this bill is considered necessary to holding together any successful international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA analysis confirmed that if international emissions reduction goals set by the G8 countries are met, warming would be no more than 2°C by 2100. But without Congressional action, we simply cannot expect China or India, let alone the developing world, to set the binding targets that we ourselves are not setting.

photo: Steel Winds turbines in NewYork. Courtesy Department of Environmental Conservation.

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