America’s blind spot: what’s missing from the COP21 climate talks

Oil and gas development on public lands.

Wild Earth Guardians, flickr. 

An international agreement on climate change is expected before the end of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris this Dec. 11, but one critical element is still missing from the dialogue.

Emissions from oil, gas and coal extraction on our public lands are so large that they must be addressed in order to effectively curb our contributions to climate change. 

The United States is taking a significant leadership role in the fight against climate change on a number of fronts, but the country's public lands have largely been absent from the discussion and carbon reduction committments.

This is a significant oversight because the U.S. government manages hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, many of which are sites of oil, gas and coal extraction. And these lands produce one-fifth of all greenhouse gases in the United States, according to our recent Blind Spot report (PDF).

What’s in the blind spot? Emissions from federal lands

In 2015, the president mandated that all federal agencies reduce their direct greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over the next decade. The administration also put forward a 30 percent renewable energy target for federal agency’s energy consumption.

Unfortunately, land management activities have been exempted from these directives. This oversight must be addressed.

We must update our energy policies on public lands. That means that we need to put into place a system to measure the energy we are extracting on public lands, and the ultimate carbon consequences of using that energy.

Oil and gas development. Photo by blake.thornberry, flickr. 

We must measure what we are using—and losing

Even while tens of millions of acres of public lands are under lease to energy companies, no one is tracking the total amount of resources extracted, let alone the impacts these resources will have on the climate once burned.

Our recent Blind Spot report estimates that more than one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are generated on public lands—but that is just an estimate, because the federal government is not providing official and transparent numbers that would tell us for sure.

And because a system for inventorying the energy that is being pulled from the ground does not exist, it is impossible to set targets for reducing its impacts. That means that the federal government lacks any way to include public lands in its efforts to reduce carbon pollution.

Pollution by the numbers

Many Americans do not realize that their public lands have long been a place of energy development and all of the consequences that come with it. They may be even more surprised to learn that the way the federal government manages energy extraction on its lands has barely changed in nearly 100 years.

Consider these facts:

  • Today, there are more than 100,000 oil and gas wells and 300 coal mines on our federal lands.
  • Leases for energy extraction cover more than 37 million acres across the West and Alaska.
  • In 2014, public lands and waters supplied 40 percent of the nation’s coal, 14 percent of the natural gas, and 21.4 percent of the oil produced in the U.S.
  • According to a recent report commissioned by The Wilderness Society and the Center for American Progress, resources extracted from federal lands are estimated to be responsible for more than one-fifth of all greenhouse gases in the United States.
  • In 2012, federal land emissions translated to the equivalent of the annual emissions of 270 coal power plants. And this number doesn’t even account for fugitive emissions—the unintentional release of gas during production—which is not measured.

Oil and gas development on public lands. Photo by EcoFlight.

Why public lands matter in the climate fight

As countries across the world look for ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, America’s publicly owned lands play an important role in the nation’s transition to a low-carbon energy future.

Unfortunately, outdated policies and practices that favor fossil fuel extraction above all other land uses—and subsidize it at taxpayers’ expense—are standing in the way of modernizing the way we do business on public lands.

With its rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Obama Administration has shown that the carbon consequences of energy decisions matter. And as the U.S. continues talks at COP21, the public lands owned by all of us must be an integral part of any climate change commitments made—now and in the future.

The time is now

Climate change continues to accelerate. We cannot afford to wait any longer. We must change how we manage our public lands and waters so that we are accounting for current and future carbon impacts from energy development on federal lands.

To ensure public lands are part of the climate solution and not part of the climate problem, federal agencies should take the historic step of measuring, disclosing and ultimately reducing the carbon legacy we are leaving future generations.

Any comprehensive U.S. carbon management plan coming out of the 2015 international climate talks should acknowledge this need—and address it.