Energy & Climate

Our nation’s public lands are vast and diverse. While these lands are valuable for recreation, preservation and science, they also play a big role in producing energy to power America.

Energy companies have leases on millions of acres of American public lands. This includes lands that have been opened to the cleaner energy that our country desperately needs, but the primary resources removed from public lands are still oil, gas and coal. The extraction and use of these fuels contributes more than one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and leave permanent scars on the land.

Because of energy policies that were created long ago but never revisited or updated, no one monitors how many resources are being extracted from our public lands every day—and we don’t understand the exact implications of these practices on climate change.

The consequences of moving into the 21st century under outdated energy policies are great. Global climate change, poor air and water quality, public health problems and the loss of recreation and cultural opportunities will affect us far into the future.

That’s unless we modernize how we are doing business on our public lands. Moving energy and conservation into the 21st century will have lasting benefits for our land, our air and for future generations.

Modernizing how we do business

Bringing our public lands energy development into the 21st century will require a smart and forward-thinking approach. As leaders set targets for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they must address the “blind spot”—the role that public lands play in climate change. A sustainable future also requires continuing to reform how energy leasing takes place on our lands, as well as seeing to it that our country stays on a path toward a cleaner energy future.

Photo by Ecoflight.

Measuring and managing energy and climate change impacts

Our public land management agencies must take stock of the resources they are leasing and the impacts these decisions have. Right now, the federal government measures leases by surface acres, but has no idea of the volume of resources being leased. Consequently, we do not know how many years’ supply are under lease for oil, gas and coal. We need to better measure the energy resources we have so that we know the carbon consequences of these practices.

Knowing this information will help the Interior Department and other federal agencies better manage the impacts of energy development and create a plan to reduce the impacts on climate change from energy extracted from our public lands.

Cleaning up natural resource waste

21st-century policies for our public lands will address the everyday waste of our publically owned resources. Practices like the venting and burning of methane during oil extraction must be eliminated. Methane, which comprises 95 percent of natural gas, is more than 80 times more harmful than carbon when burned and released into the air. Requiring the capture of this currently discarded methane can help lessen climate change impacts, but it will also clean up our land and water, reduce public health issues and ensure that we are not wasting valuable natural resources.

Protecting our wildest places

Much of the oil and gas produced in America comes from wildlands overseen by the federal government under outdated policies and guidance. Oil and gas drilling is acceptable on certain federal lands. But some places are simply too wild to drill—in these places, important wildlife habitat, scenic beauty and other cultural and environmental benefits are at risk. The Bureau of Land Management currently protects less than 10 percent of lands for conservation, leaving more than 90 percent open to potential energy development.

Continuing to modernize federal agency energy management will be critical to protecting wild places. A number of thoughtful tactics will help with this effort. Revising land management plans, protecting key wildlife and reforming how energy development opportunities are identified all provide opportunities to put conservation in the mix early on.

Photo by Black Rock Solar, flickr. 

Encouraging renewable energy

Replacing polluting energy with cleaner, renewable sources like wind and solar can reduce carbon emissions and limit the worst effects of climate change. Clean energy will play an important role in creating a national sustainable energy program that has less of a negative impact on the land, air, water and wildlife. In addition, a significant commitment to clean energy must include place guidelines that build off of the lessons learned from oil, gas and coal leasing.

Since 2009 America has seen tremendous growth in clean energy, with solar energy harvested on American public lands for the first time. There is potential for many more solar and other renewable energy projects to be built and managed in ways that ensure we move closer to a clean energy future.

Receiving our fair share

A modern approach to energy development on public lands must include updated fees for the extraction of our shared natural resources. Present-day rates for leases and royalty payments from oil and natural gas drilling are almost 100 years old, and rates charged for coal mining on public lands haven’t been updated in nearly 50 years. The funds generated from these fees go to important local community resources like schools, roads and local conservation efforts. Updating rates to reflect the modern energy market will help ensure that the true economic cost of these practices will be absorbed by the fossil fuel industry, and that the American people get their fair share of the revenue generated from resources that belong to us all.