Striking a balance: Modern energy policy for America's lands

Charting a balanced future for our public lands

Our public lands are a vivid symbol of our democracy; shared national resources that we hold in trust for the next generation. At the same time, these lands contain vast economic opportunity and have long helped power the nation. These aims are not inherently in conflict but it will take committed effort to strike the balance needed to conserve our public lands for future generations.

We must maintain resilient ecosystems by protecting large, connected landscapes where species can roam and migrate. As our knowledge grows about the importance of maintaining large, connected landscapes to allow irreplaceable natural systems to cope with the impacts of climate change, we have a more compelling reason than ever to protect our nation’s public lands, as we are challenged to think about conservation at a much broader scale. The value of wild public lands to maintain healthy ecosystems in the face of climate change has never been higher.

For too long, energy development on our public lands has been characterized by controversy. Planning decisions too often fail to avoid reasonably foreseeable conflicts and recognize that some areas are simply too special to develop. We must do better to develop the energy we need while protecting the places we love.

As Americans, it’s up to us to define a future that protects our natural resources for generations to come for the many values they provide us—as economic drivers of the West, as natural reserves, as places to recreate and as critical habitat for plants and animals. Now is the time to apply new tools to help find an appropriate balance.

Fortunately, significant progress has been made over the past decade in how we permit energy projects on public lands. Despite the political challenges we face, the United States can and should continue to play a leadership role on the global stage in addressing the energy revolution that is underway and building the new energy economy. We should ensure our public lands are part of the solution to climate change by measuring and reducing carbon emissions from energy projects. As we work to transition toward clean, renewable energy, we have an opportunity to cement a modern approach to energy development—one that considers the full value of the landscape as we find places suitable for industrial-scale development.

The Wilderness Society is committed to working with government, industry and conservation partners to find solutions to today’s most pressing challenges on public lands management. Our vision outlines a pragmatic approach toward modernizing energy development on public lands, offering solutions to address climate change, increase the efficiency of permitting energy projects, reduce costs and conflicts, and maintain and enhance resilient landscapes. I hope you will join us in making this vision a reality.

- Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society

Executive Summary

Our public lands are one of America’s best assets. From the wild tundra of Alaska’s Arctic to the coasts of Maine, the 640 million acres set aside for all Americans as public lands define the character of who we are as a country. These shared assets provide many important natural resources, are home to irreplaceable wilderness and cultural sites, and support some of the best recreation opportunities in the world. The federal lands and waters also provide us with 25 percent or more of our domestically-produced energy.

Today, Americans have an opportunity to define a brighter future for our public lands by identifying and protecting the values these lands have provided our nation for centuries. The impacts of habitat fragmentation from energy development, coupled with the indisputable effects of climate change on ecosystem resilience, remain the largest long-term threat to our wildlands. And, as our national parks are being loved to death, the public lands traditionally turned to as energy resources are increasingly becoming important recreation destinations. How we best manage these assets for the 21st century is a question we must answer thoughtfully—and it is with this question that we put forth this vision for energy development on public lands.

Our shared lands should be managed in the interest of current and future generations. Today, we face policy choices that will have a significant impact on both the long-term conservation of our wildlands and the contribution of our public lands to a more sustainable energy future. Yet, more than 90 percent of multiple-use public lands managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) remain open to energy development while less than 10 percent are managed for conservation goals, an imbalance that is in no one’s best interest. For these reasons, we focus this document on the opportunities we see to modernize energy development and use of the lands managed by the BLM for all Americans.

As scientific evidence mounts that maintaining large, intact wild landscapes is essential for the future of our economy and our planet, we must strike a better balance in our use of natural resources with this knowledge in mind. We know that our lands are not limitless. Given our 21st century challenges, protecting what wild space still exists should be an important goal for our land management agencies. We must ensure a shift away from careless development and toward a much more careful approach to our energy resources than we have historically allowed.

This document provides a framework for how we envision America’s public lands should be managed for energy development in 2025 and beyond, in a manner that results in healthy and resilient landscapes and ensures stewardship of the full scope of values they provide—clean air, water, wildlife habitat, subsistence, recreation and cultural values.

We envision that, by 2025, energy development on our public lands will be managed in a manner that protects wildlands, vulnerable communities and important uses; advances our national climate commitments; and ensures big, connected landscapes are healthy and resilient in the face of inevitable change. 


Our public lands are a remarkable asset owned by all Americans. These lands have long helped power our nation and will continue to do so well into the future. Federal agencies are charged by Congress to steward these lands—and the vast energy resources they contain—for the benefit of current and future generations.

Decisions about where, when and even whether to develop certain energy resources have not been consistent with the long-term public interest. Land-management policies to prioritize and subsidize the development of coal, oil and gas continue to ensure energy as the dominant use and, even then, clean energy options such as wind and solar have only recently been given attention. The role that our public lands play in supplying our nation’s energy needs to change—and change at a much faster pace.

The Wilderness Society works to address the key challenges that our public lands face as we transition to a cleaner energy future. Energy production, when carefully developed and properly managed, is an appropriate use of our public lands. For us, that means rapidly bringing energy development into the 21st century to make it cleaner, with stronger protections for wildlands, less harmful to our air, water and communities, including subsistence communities, and aligned with our nation’s goals for reducing climate emissions.

Our vision focuses on the lands managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the single largest land manager in the West. The 247 million acres in the western United States and Alaska that are under the jurisdiction of the BLM contain some of the most beautiful and ecologically significant landscapes on this continent, and most remain unprotected.

These lands are the last, best chance we have to build a system of diverse conservation lands that approaches what the future is certain to require for the permanent physical, economic and spiritual well-being of Americans—not to mention the well-being of the land itself. As we steadily gain knowledge of the biological diversity and ecological roles that desert, sagebrush, tundra and grassland ecosystems play, we also know that these lands are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The BLM is also the nation’s largest energy asset manager, responsible for overseeing energy development on lands under its charge and on other federal and private lands, including those under the stewardship of the U.S. Forest Service—700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights in total. These resources combined with offshore development play a significant role in the nation’s energy portfolio, contributing 25 percent or more of total U.S. fossil energy used for electricity, transportation and production of goods.

Only recently has the agency embraced the other essential component of its multiple-use mandate: conservation. From its inception in the 1990s, and formal establishment in 2000, the National Conservation Lands has acknowledged that conservation areas should be managed as an integral part of BLM’s full portfolio, at a new and higher benchmark, for 21st century land stewardship.

The BLM’s policies and culture have not kept pace with the rapid change in Americans’ expectations. A fundamental imbalance is easy to spot today: 9 out of 10 acres of unprotected public lands are open to oil, gas and coal development, leaving little room for recreation or other uses. We know this is far from what should be protected to ensure greater landscape resiliency in the face of climate change. At the project level, risk-averse developers want to see greater certainty that lands leased by the federal government have been pre-screened for the types of conflicts that can tie up a proposal in years of litigation.

We are at a pivotal moment where the policy decisions we make today will set the trajectory for how our public lands are managed into the future. These decisions will both shape the patterns of protection and energy development and determine whether public lands play an active role in our national solution to climate change. 

Our vision

We envision that, by 2025, energy development on our public lands will be managed in a way that prioritizes stewardship of the unique values they provide—clean air, water, wildlife habitat, subsistence, recreation and cultural values. Federal agencies will manage energy resources as assets as part of our national climate strategy to be put to use when truly needed, in a manner that protects sensitive resources and aligns with our national climate objectives. Energy management decisions ensure landscapes are healthy and resilient in the face of inevitable change.

Key outcomes to meet the 2025 vision:

We must achieve five key outcomes to realize this vision for managing energy and addressing climate impacts of energy development on our public lands.

  1. Areas of irreplaceable conservation, social or ecological value are protected

Areas of high conservation value, especially wildlands, will be identified, excluded from new energy development, and proactively managed for the conservation values they provide to current and future generations of Americans. 

Wilderness-quality lands and other areas with high conservation value should be managed for conservation before development is even considered. Such determinations would be accompanied by administrative designations—such as wilderness study areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, or Backcountry Conservation Areas—and management prescriptions that would impart durable protection over time to these areas and the resources and values they contain. Decisions to designate conservation management areas on certain public lands need to be carried out before public lands are committed to development.

Currently, leases for energy development exist on areas of high conservation and cultural value because the BLM has encouraged and incentivized energy development on federal lands for generations with little regard for these resources. But within this decade, 70 percent of BLM lands will undergo a resource management plan review at the local level. This creates a tremendous opportunity to update land-use plans to reflect areas identified for conservation as well as to conduct new analyses on wildlife movement, habitat, key recreation areas, water and wetlands changes and other resources that deserve protection.

“…leases for energy development exist on areas of high conservation and cultural value because the BLM has encouraged and incentivized energy development on federal lands for generations with little regard for these resources.” 

This outcome starts with a commitment to ensuring wildlands and other important lands are protected for future generations using an open and transparent public process that brings all Americans together to define the future. That means that the BLM must affirmatively manage public lands for stewardship of natural resource values, to direct development toward appropriate places right from the start.

2. Public lands are managed to reduce their contribution to climate change

The public lands’ contribution to total greenhouse gas emissions will be managed consistently with U.S. commitments under international climate reduction agreements. The public lands will be managed to ensure ecosystem resilience and enhance carbon storage opportunities. 

Climate change is the most important long-term threat to our wild places. It does not respect boundaries. Our public lands can and should be part of our national climate strategy, not a victim of our inaction. In fact, public lands provide our nation with some of the best opportunities to preserve large, intact landscapes we know we need to protect for species to have the best opportunity to adapt to climate change.

All land management agencies have the opportunity and responsibility to address the threat posed by unabated temperature increases, drought, sea level rises and the attendant impacts on plants, wildlife and water resources caused by climate change. Furthermore, our public lands provide an unrivaled opportunity for carbon sequestration. While we must manage landscapes to increase their resiliency, we must also make decisions that consider the resulting carbon pollution associated with energy development.

In 2016, the Department of the Interior made America’s first-ever commitment to measure the carbon emissions resulting from oil, gas and coal production on public lands. This effort should be standard practice. Agency policies, land-use plans and evaluations of individual projects should include reliable estimates of the climate consequences of decisions under review. A tracking system should be available to the public that presents the total volume of oil, gas and coal under lease, annual production and associated carbon emissions, and expected future emissions based on current market forecasts and technologies.

Decisions about energy development on public lands should be made consistent with national climate targets. At the 2015 international climate conference in Paris, the United States and other countries committed to individually tailored steps aimed at limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

We must be doing all we can to meet the commitments set by the United States in this regard, and our public lands can be a platform for our nation to demonstrate leadership by bringing federal energy decisions into alignment with that trajectory. For public lands to do their part, land-management agencies should take steps to reduce the carbon emissions that result from energy development on public lands by at least 25 percent by 2025, on track toward a reduction of at least 70 percent of 2010 levels by 2050 (see graph).

The Department of the Interior under the Obama Administration took steps in that direction by tightening rules to reduce the waste of methane that could otherwise be captured and sold, and establishing aggressive goals to permit renewable energy.

Market factors external to the agency and regulatory change at the state and federal level can contribute to the overall decline in demand for fossil-fuel energy production on public lands. But to identify and implement policies to meet those targets that are cost-effective and fair, including additional incentives to improve the carbon intensity of production, storage and transportation of fossil fuels, the Department must take additional steps to measure and manage the carbon consequences of energy production, including the establishment of a carbon budget for public lands against which all new and modified leases are measured. 

3. Public lands responsibly support the new energy economy

Our public lands policies will help advance clean-energy technologies, supporting renewable energy development by expanding opportunities for generation and transmission in zones pre-screened for conflict, and by supporting the demonstration of new technological solutions to minimize impacts.

Our public lands should continue to support the transition toward a clean energy future across the West. Responsible development means we should focus on not only where to develop but also what to develop. With smart planning, we can better address future energy needs by maximizing the use of previously disturbed areas, advancing renewable energy on public lands at a faster pace and where necessary to meet demand, and ensuring the suitability of places for utility-scale development. While aggressive deployment of rooftop solar arrays and increased energy conservation and efficiency will reduce the pressure to develop land-based technologies, we must plan for the public lands to continue to play a role in facilitating responsibly-sited renewable energy.

Wind, solar, geothermal, and other emerging technologies—and the regulatory framework that is evolving to permit these types of energy—have an opportunity to adopt a new zone-based approach to planning that prioritizes appropriate areas for development, thereby reducing risks for developers and avoiding sensitive lands. Established zones for energy development should be used to reduce the amount of time and the costs associated with permitting a project. Though renewable energy provides clean electricity, the impacts of development should be as carefully considered as fossil resources. Similarly, public lands managers should ensure that needed transmission corridors are established in areas that have been pre-screened to avoid conflicts.

The Department of the Interior completed the Western Solar Plan in 2012, establishing 19 low-conflict solar zones with excellent solar resources. The program sets forth guidelines for establishing additional solar zones, and future zones should be designed to prioritize access to transmission. High-quality wind and geothermal resources have been identified on public lands, but low-conflict zones have not been established for geothermal and only limited zones have been established for wind. We need to go a step further.

By 2025, we want to see new targets for renewable-energy development on public lands based on regional needs and accompanying pre-screened development areas, and the best science and management practices available used to site projects. 

Public lands can also play an important role in “proof of concept” for emerging technologies. We expect to see federal land managers support—where possible— the private sector’s interest in investing in clean energy by facilitating opportunities to demonstrate new, more efficient technologies in low-conflict areas that minimize impacts to wildlife and other resources.

Furthermore, we must shift the playing field by rationalizing the policies, preferences and agency staff allocation dedicated to overseeing fossil and renewable energy development. All forms of energy should be required to pay for the true costs of development to taxpayers and the planet.

For public lands energy development, we want to see an elimination of the subsidies and shortcuts that enable oil, gas and coal production to occur on public lands at below-market rates. Policies and guidelines to permit new types of energy should mature as these industries grow so that by 2025 renewable energy has a smart regulatory framework in place for public lands and a larger, dedicated staff and budget to support projects through the permitting process. Additionally, we must have in place policies that share benefits with local communities and conservation efforts near renewable energy development, as is the practice for other forms of energy development on America’s public lands and waters. 

4. The impacts of energy development are fully addressed.

Where energy development occurs on our public lands, the BLM will require producers to take actions that minimize or offset impacts to maintain a healthy environment. The BLM will have adequate resources to monitor energy projects over their full lifespans.

Historically, efforts to offset unavoidable impacts to the environment have been designed as an afterthought to project permitting. Even well-sited energy infrastructure carries with it significant impacts, including fragmentation of wildlife habitat and movement corridors, fouling of air and water quality from drilling and truck traffic, emissions of climate pollution, and destroying or degrading historic artifacts and cultural resource areas.

When planning, we should consider how to address impacts to the entire ecosystems and resources within a landscape. A modern approach to mitigating the effects of energy development starts by avoiding sensitive wildlands, wildlife habitat, cultural and other resources on our public lands; minimizing impacts to resources during development; and investing in offsite compensatory mitigation in the form of restoration or additional protection.

Where shared natural resources are committed to development, we want to see the agency make a greater investment in review and consideration of the effects of each project over its lifetime and in the context of additional future development within the landscape. Where actions to mitigate development occur, they should provide durable solutions, lasting at least as long as the impacts of each project. Furthermore, public lands should help offset the effects of energy development on private or state lands adjacent or near to public lands. In 2025, we want to see landscape-scale mitigation planning as standard practice to more effectively invest scarce mitigation resources. 

Our federal land-management agencies should be fully funded to manage all aspects of energy development—from planning to permitting to reclamation. The BLM should engage in monitoring and adaptive management over the lifecycle of each project.

Between political priorities in the 2000s that emphasized permitting and today’s tight budget environment, the agency has been starved of sufficient resources to oversee development and ensure proper reclamation. We need to fix this unsustainable trend. The chronic under-funding of the agency’s safety and inspections program will result in additional costs to the taxpayer in the future when leaks and spills occur. Lands that have not been reclaimed are often handed back to the government—along with the related cleanup costs—because current bonding levels are insufficient. In 2025, the agency should be fully resourced to plan for future development and oversee current development, not just permit new projects.

5. Smarter planning drives energy development decisions

Planning decisions are made with consideration of effects to the landscape, with input gathered through broad stakeholder engagement and with concern for the communities impacted by a changing economy.

Energy producers have long dictated the pace and scale of development on public lands across the West. Land managers have operated in a reactive mode, accepting proposals to develop without advance planning to direct development to low-conflict areas— leaving sensitive areas open with little to no analysis of resource values.

The American public has largely been left out of these decisions. Producers have not been provided information that could have saved time and money lost to unsuccessful development bids in areas known to be controversial. Communities that are dependent on energy development for revenue have been left to share the burden and assume the risk of a boom and bust economy.

In 2025, we want to see the conservation value of our public lands as the principal basis from which the agencies make land allocations, and a broad range of stakeholders—from citizens to scientists to investors— engaged in the planning process before projects are proposed. This is an important commitment if we are to preserve our best chances of reducing the impacts of climate change.

A shift in the way the government does business will require that we update laws such as the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920—written for a different time in our nation’s history—that prioritize resource extraction often at the expense of taxpayers and the environment. It will also require a shift in the way Americans participate in the management of their shared assets to meet increasingly complex conservation challenges in a rapidly warming world.

Several changes are underway to advance the way land managers proactively consider landscape values. Resource management planning should take into account long-term values, such as ecosystem health and resiliency, clean air and water, key wildlife movement and migration corridors, recreation, cultural resources and protection for traditional uses of the land when designing areas for development, conservation and mitigation.

A new approach to public land management, finalized in 2016 through a new planning rule, aims to amend regulations to modernize the way we do resource management planning. The objective is to increase public involvement and cooperation with other agencies, across jurisdictional boundaries and with tribal entities, as well as to incorporate the most current data and technology into the BLM’s resource management planning, using the best available science and technology, and expanding opportunities for public participation, transparency and consistency in the planning process. In 2025, early and thorough public engagement should be standard practice for all resource management plan revisions.

Once areas are identified where development does not pose an unacceptable threat, new tools like Master Leasing Plans for oil and gas should be used to proac­tively identify areas within a plan boundary that could expedite and make more transparent development areas, as well as areas that may need additional protec­tion to offset unavoidable impacts of energy develop­ment already occurring within the landscape. Master Leasing Plans have been used successfully to identify resource protection needs in a landscape context, and to implement best management practices that will need to occur as a result of development. We want to see Master Leasing Planning become standard practice for all areas with oil and gas potential.

BLM planning efforts present opportunities for all stakeholders—local communities and all Americans— to develop a shared vision for managing the many opportunities found on public lands. Thought should be given to how public lands can best serve fossil energy resource-dependent regions as the nation moves away from these fuels toward cleaner technologies and amenity-based economies to ensure that no community is left behind in this transition.

We recognize that energy development will remain an important use of our public lands, and as communities consider more sustainable industries that would benefit communities—such as tourism, hunting and recreation, and clean power production—we should have the tools in place to recognize and plan for that future. By 2025, the BLM will ensure that emerging economic and other opportunities—where fossil energy development may be phasing down—are fully supported in the planning process, including recreation and restoration of disturbed lands. 


These five key outcomes address the most important changes we need to make today to manage our public lands and resources for the future. While change will not happen overnight, the importance of shifting toward a clean-energy economy while simultaneously protecting critical habitat is something that the federal government must address more rapidly, building on the incredible momentum of the past decade. The BLM should continue to work closely with conservation and industry partners to determine the lowest-conflict areas for development, and update policies and regulations in support of this transition. The federal government must continue to ensure the public has meaningful participation and honest transparency in the decisions to come.

As more Americans visit our public lands, we should continue to look at these lands as places that can help support the growing outdoor recreation economy and new economic opportunities not yet identified. We know that the value of the public lands will only increase over time as Americans rediscover these incredible places. It is time to be planning a future that ensures this rich natural heritage persists for generations to come. 

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