U.S. Senators Introduce Historic Bill to Address Climate Change on Public Lands


GREG WINSTON/National Geographic Creative 

This week, members of the Senate called for the Obama Administration to do more to address climate change and other negative impacts of fossil fuel development on public lands.

By Joshua Mantell

The Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground Act of 2015, introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and six other senators, would prohibit both new leases of fossil fuels on federal lands and the renewal of leases that are not producing energy. In addition, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, and seven other senators sent a letter calling for reform of the federal coal program. 

It is very good to see U.S. Senators elevate the issue of fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and its contribution to global climate change. As The Wilderness Society has detailed this year, we estimate that over one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to fossil fuels sourced from our public lands. Yet their impact is not factored into our nation’s goals to combat climate change.  

This fact is a huge blind spot in the nation’s approach to climate change, and decision makers must pay more attention to it. With federal lands responsible for 40 percent of the coal, 16 percent of the natural gas and 9 percent of the oil consumed in the U.S., we need a holistic approach to truly address the way energy development on our public lands contributes to climate change.

Putting in place a clear, transparent and comprehensive tool that measures the greenhouse gas volumes from the extraction and leasing decisions of fossil fuel development on federal lands is a vital first step to understanding the true scope of the problem at hand. Then a management plan to modernize energy extraction on public lands can finally be devised and implemented.

The Obama Administration and the Department of the Interior can and should move this idea forward, and having congressional support is an important part of the process. This Administration can be the first in history to acknowledge the role that energy development on federal lands plays in climate change, finally addressing the blind spot in the nation’s approach to climate change.