Move in the right direction: New federal guidance accounts for climate change impacts on public lands

Oil rig on Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Mason Cummings/TWS

A new historic policy helps the federal government address climate change impacts in public land management decisions.

On August 2, guidance from the Obama administration on the National Environmental Policy Act ensures that federal agencies fully address greenhouse gas emissions from energy projects on public lands for the first time. The policy requires federal agencies to consider the impact of climate when planning development on public lands.

This long-awaited and much-needed guidance released by the Obama Administration requires climate change science to be included in environmental studies for individual projects on public lands, such as oil and gas development. Until now, energy extraction on public lands has been a “blind spot” in our accounting of contributions to climate change.

Adding climate change impacts to assessing public lands projects is a huge step in how our federal government manages 640 million acres of public lands, from national parks and forests to Bureau of Land Management lands. Now, federal agencies can use climate science to better decide where, how and even whether to move ahead with development, from oil drilling to renewable energy projects, on public lands.

Finally, climate is part of planning projects on public lands

Although the threats of climate change are acknowledged by scientists and global leaders, it has been a long road to incorporate climate change impacts into U.S. federal land management policy.

Passed in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, helps the government document the environmental impacts of any project undertaken with federal funds or support, including any type of development on public lands. But until now, the government never had guidance on how to analyze and plan for climate change impacts from development.  

Beginning in 2010, the Obama administration began to update and modernize NEPA to include climate change, but the draft policy specifically excluded land management. The Wilderness Society and others pushed back on this glaring omission, because we understand that it is absolutely necessary that long-term climate impacts on our public lands and waters be considered. Now, this revised guidance takes the first steps in helping the government make smart land management decisions using climate science.

Tracking greenhouse gas emissions on public lands is vital

With almost 30 percent of America’s annual energy production coming from public lands, it is time that federal agencies understand the effects of energy extraction on the climate. But it is not enough to just understand climate impacts—the government needs to also track annual emissions coming from federal lands.

A recent Wilderness Society report says at least 1/5 of all greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. come from public lands-but this is just a rough estimation. The new NEPA guidance will now require agencies to better track and calculate how energy development adds to total U.S. emissions.

“The climate consequences of energy development and other land management decisions on our public lands have been a persistent blind spot in the nation’s climate strategy. Today’s historic action will help ensure our public lands are part of the solution, not perpetuating the problem.” says Chase Huntley, senior director of the energy and climate campaign at The Wilderness Society.

We are running out of time to meet U.S. climate goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. Only with this kind of holistic policy can we create resiliency in the face of an already-changing climate on our public lands.

More needs to be done to make public lands part of the climate solution

Although this is a positive first step, the new guidance looks at the impacts of climate and greenhouse gas emissions on a project-by-project basis. This guidance needs to be implemented over landscape-level planning decisions, so that landscapes are set aside for conservation and larger-scale development projects are halted when considering climate change.

Looking to the future, the guidance is huge accomplishment and a crucial move towards incorporating climate science more holistically into land management and conservation decisions. Recognizing that climate change affects the way we manage our public lands on a grand scale is key to preserving our public lands for generations to come.