Administration’s historic budget makes smart choices for 21st-century public lands management

President Obama and Department of the Interior Secretery Sally Jewell support smart choices in energy development.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The Obama Administration’s newly released 2016 budget outlines a vision for 21st-century energy development on our public lands that will encourage clean energy and protect our air, water, and land.

In addition, under Secretary Sally Jewell’s leadership, the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Land Management have taken significant steps to modernize energy production on the millions of acres of publicly owned land they are responsible for managing across the country. The reforms the Secretary has begun will help us ensure we meet our moral obligation to safeguard public resources for future generations. But those reforms have also been a heavy lift, and in order to bring public lands management into the 21st century, the Department has had to revisit policies that haven’t been updated in decades.

With this budget and DOI’s recently announced guidelines, the Obama Administration is working to modernize public lands management—and making history as the first Administration to take action toward measuring and managing for the climate consequences of energy decisions on the lands that belong to all of us.

Reforming Coal Leasing

Last month, the President and the Secretary announced their intent to take the first hard look at the federal coal leasing program in more than a generation. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office and the Department’s Inspector General have faulted the federal coal program—the source of 40 percent of America’s coal—for systemic deficiencies.

The outdated system does not ensure taxpayers a fair return, lacks significant transparency and fails to protect the health and safety of nearby communities. But with a modern approach to energy production and a clear scientific understanding of the impacts of coal extraction and use, the Department’s review will establish a program more fit for tomorrow’s energy landscape.

Cutting Natural Gas Waste

Also in January, Interior announced new proposed guidelines to cut natural gas waste on our public lands that will significantly cut back on the amount of gas lost every year on federal lands through venting, flaring, and leaks. These guidelines will make sure gas gets sold and used, not lost, recovering royalties for the federal treasury and communities—an estimated $800 million in royalties over ten years that could go directly to improve local infrastructure like schools and roads. And they will significantly reduce methane pollution fouling the air with smog in western communities and damaging the climate at up to 84 times the rate of carbon dioxide.

There are also plans to finish major reforms to the oil and gas leasing program. Several agencies, including the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, are finalizing new policies for where and how development gets approved that will better protect wildlife, recreation opportunities and wild places.  

Driving Responsible Renewable Energy

Meanwhile since President Obama took office, more than 50 renewable energy projects have been approved. Just as importantly, his Administration has put in place new systems to improve how projects are sited to minimize conflicts with wildlands and wildlife.

To continue establishing a smart renewable energy program, Interior has been working to finalize new wind and solar leasing guidelines. Putting this policy in place will guide development towards smarter places and establish a more efficient leasing process, leveling the playing field with fossil fuel energy projects and ensuring that developing clean energy on public lands becomes the new standard for doing business.

Measuring and Managing Pollution

The Department is also driving forward with the first-ever effort to track climate change-causing pollution from fossil fuel leasing—an issue often lost in the public discussion around energy development.

Until now, the government has had no way to monitor (and therefore no means to report to the American people) the climate impact of the fossil energy that has been leased or is currently under consideration for leasing. While rough estimates exist—with the Center for American Progress, we found that more than one-fifth of all greenhouse gases in the United States can be traced back to fossil fuels extracted from federal lands and waters—there has never been a systematic, government-managed assessment of the true consequences.

To make the best decisions about where, when and what we are extracting from public lands, we must know more. A comprehensive and transparent database is crucial for our understanding on the role our public lands play in solving—or fueling—the climate crisis.

It’s about time we make smarter choices about where and how we develop energy on public lands. We should be tapping the new clean energy we need while protecting the places we hope to pass on to our children, and that will requiring modernizing how we put our public lands to work powering the nation. Under Secretary Jewell’s leadership, the Department of the Interior is on track to bring energy development on public lands into the 21st century. These commonsense, necessary efforts deserve support from all Americans.