New report sheds light on the emissions coming from public lands

Pollution from energy development on public lands is becoming an increasingly important problem to address. 

Dawn Ellner, flickr.

By Joshua Mantell

When The Wilderness Society looked at fossil fuels from federal lands earlier this year, we revealed a blind spot in the nation’s efforts to address global climate change: currently no plan exists to account for and manage greenhouse gas emissions created from energy extracted from our public lands. This despite the fact that more than 20 percent of our nation’s annual climate emissions may be generated from burning oil, gas and coal extracted from public lands and waters.

Now a new analysis gives another peek at the scope of the blind spot around public lands. The report by EcoShift Consulting looks at the vast amount of oil, gas and coal managed by the Department of the Interior. One aspect of the report focused on the amount of carbon emissions possible from fossil fuels extracted from our public lands on leases energy companies already hold but are not yet developing. This important new research found that as much as 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide are already under lease on our public lands and waters—equal to the the amount of all emissions from the United States in six and a half years. This analysis highlights another important aspect of the climate challenge that our federal lands present.

In our report earlier this year, we recommended better accounting and management of future carbon emissions from energy development on public lands. The Obama Administration has taken important steps towards reducing the nation’s carbon footprint through increasing fuel efficiency for vehicles, cleaning up the nation’s power plants and other measures. Carbon pollution from federal resources is a decade’s old problem inherited by this administration. But it is past time to address and deal with it.

The administration has a historic opportunity to confront this challenge head-on by developing a carbon management strategy for publicly-managed energy resources, including establishing clear guidance for estimating the climate consequences of development decisions at the planning and leasing levels as well as building an inventory of the carbon consequences of leased resources. This will provide a clear understanding of the consequences of any extraction, as well as the information to warrant action to reduce the impacts of development.

The evidence is mounting. We must factor public lands into America’s climate strategy. Now the federal government needs to do its own data collection and act to make sure that public lands are no longer a “blind spot” in our climate plans. Federal lands should be part of the climate solution, not stoke the climate fire.