New “Carbon Tracker” a step forward in accounting for harmful pollution

Emissions from coal-powered plants.

WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

A new report focuses on the potential future of the federal coal program considering the climate goals set by the United States.

By Joshua Mantell

A new report released from Carbon Tracker Initiative focuses on what the future federal coal program could look like, if the country were to meet its goals under current international climate commitments. With the federal coal program presently under a comprehensive review by the Department of the Interior, now is a perfect time to step back and imagine what would be necessary to ensure that the federal coal program is not out of step with the nation’s climate goals.

Carbon Tracker, a think tank of legal, financial, and energy experts working to assess the financial community’s climate change risks, approaches the federal coal program from the scenario of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the level that experts say we must not go above in order to mitigate the harshest consequences of global climate change. When the Department of the Interior initiated the review of the federal coal program in January, they pledged to take into account the climate impacts and consequences of extracting coal from our national public lands. This report sheds light on what that looks like.

The Wilderness Society has been leading efforts to force a discussion on how much fossil fuels from our public lands contribute to our nation’s climate footprint. In March 2015, we published the “blind spot” report, which estimated that oil, gas, and coal developed on public lands account for over 20 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gases. However, the data that was used for the report was not verified by the administration and used assumptions and estimations. What became clear is that a new initiative to account for the carbon emissions and impacts from federal fossil fuel production was needed and that the government should use that information to better manage our shared resources.

This new report looking at just federal coal, adds more information to this discussion. It shows that the amount of coal that is currently under lease can last until 2040 and that more leasing more coal would cause more carbon emissions to go into the atmosphere.

When Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, committed to a review of the federal coal program, she also called on the United States Geological Survey to start looking at how much oil, gas and coal is currently under lease, and what are the climate consequences of those resources. It is imperative that the administration follow through on that commitment, and redouble its efforts to ensure that our nation’s public lands are no longer part of the climate problem. We need to account for the carbon emissions associated with project and planning level decisions, and use this information to better manage the nation’s resources.

This new report from Carbon Tracker Initiative is an important part of the puzzle when it comes to how our public lands contribute to climate change. By accounting for the carbon emissions from federally-owned oil, gas, and coal, and managing our resources to reduce the amount of federal resources extracted from our public lands, we can meet our nation’s climate goals and make our public lands part of the climate solution.