President Obama’s Clean Power Plan could lessen impacts of climate change on wildlands

A power plant in the Four Corners region.

President Obama takes historic step to lessen pollution from power plants

There is no greater threat to the long term health of our wild lands than climate change and today’s commitment by President Obama will help ensure that polluting sources of energy are not threatening our health or our lands. President Obama called the plan the “biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change.”

For the first time in history limits will be placed on the amount of harmful carbon pollution generated by power plants – the single largest source in the United States.

The Clean Power Plan, led by the Environmental Protection Agency, seeks to cut carbon dioxide from power plants. As part of the plan, states will be given flexibility as to how to make cuts and hit emissions targets. We could see an increase in the amount of electricity that comes from renewable energy as well as increases in energy efficiency.

Today, about 110 million acres endure as designated wilderness as part of the 618 million acres of federal public land. At The Wilderness Society, we're working to preserve these and other wild places which is why we take the threat of climate change seriously. Drought, pest and disease outbreak, sea-level rise and wildfires pose a threat to wilderness like we’ve never seen before.  In addition to reducing pollution, limiting climate change and encouraging clean energy, President Obama’s Plan will help us protect wilderness and many other wild places.

Wilderness at Risk

Unless we take action to reduce carbon pollution in the United States, we can expect to see big changes to some of our favorite outdoor places.

For example, the Interior Department released a report earlier this summer that assessed rising sea levels and 40 national parks, monuments and other coastal sites and found that $40 billion in infrastructure and other resources was at risk due to future sea-level rise resulting from climate change. Parks with low-elevation and high storm like the Everglades or Assateague Island National Seashore face the greatest risk.

Our National Forests have long been a source of clean drinking water and fresh air, but climate change induced insect infestations, wildfires, drought and disease outbreaks are also altering our forests. Huge wildfires are more common during droughts, and that coupled with rising temperatures can increase the severity of fires. In addition, warmer temperatures have prevented insects from dying during cold winters, contributing to an increase in infestations that kill trees.

Image: The BItteroot fire, by NASA.

Smart Planning for Renewable Energy

We drastically need to reduce the pollution that harms the health of wild places, and we must do so in a thoughtful way.

States can meet the emission goals set by the Clean Power Plan by increasing the amount of renewable energy sources like wind and solar in their state. In the west, this could mean an increased interest in using public land to expand renewable energy.

The Wilderness Society just released a plan for shifting how we develop wind and solar energy to cause fewer impacts on wildlife and wildlands. Renewable energy development should be planned carefully, in areas adjacent to existing infrastructure rather than remote, unspoiled wildlands.

After all, as we advance renewable energy to reduce the impacts of climate change, we shouldn’t be undermining the reason we’re acting in the first place. Smart planning for renewable energy can protect wilderness in more ways than one.

That’s why to help meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan, reduce carbon pollution and set up a ‘smart from the start’ renewable energy program, we’re encouraging the Obama Administration to put in place strong guidelines for wind and solar development on public lands that would better protect wildlands and wildlife habitat as we advance renewable energy.

Image: Black Rock Solar plant, courtesy Black Rock Solar.

Addressing a Blind Spot

The Clean Power Plan makes remarkable progress in cutting fossil fuel emissions from power plants. However, the question of where those fossil fuels originate remains largely outside of the national climate discussion.

As we reported in March of this year, energy production on federal lands accounted for as much as 24 percent of all America’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. Coal extracted alone accounts for over 57 percent of all potential emissions from fossil fuel production on federal lands. And recent analysis by ICF Consulting found that methane wasted by venting and leaks at oil and gas sites on federal land resulted in nearly 65 billion cubic feet in 2013 about the same as the emissions from 5.2 million cars.

Reaching America’s climate change goals will require a more thoughtful approach to developing publicly-owned fossil-energy resources in general.

The Obama Administration is in a position to take another critical step in the fight against climate change: accounting for emissions from fuel production on public lands to provide the essential information needed to better align public land management decisions with climate change goals going forward.

It is our understanding that President Obama will be addressing all of these issues – and building what will become his environmental legacy – during a series of public addresses this month, including a speech at the National Clean Energy Summit and possibly during a visit to Alaska to discuss climate and the Arctic.

The Wilderness Society looks forward to hearing more about his plan, and stands ready to serve as a partner in preserving our natural resources on behalf of the American people.

See also: 

A brighter future report: 3 ways to shift energy development on wildlands.