By Brian Sweeney
Conservation groups filed formal objections last week to the Biden administration’s plans to offer 734,000 acres of public lands for oil and gas leasing amid what the president himself has called a climate “code red.” Oil and gas in the proposed leases contain up to 246 million tons of climate pollution, as much as 62 coal-fired power plants emit in one year.
Last week’s filing with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says public land is off limits for leasing because of the government’s ongoing failure under multiple laws to assess and avoid harm from the federal fossil fuel program’s climate pollution. That includes harm to land, water, communities and endangered species.
“The government is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with our future,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The science is clear: In order to maintain an even chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, approximately 60% of global oil and gas must be left in the ground. I think we can all agree that a 50% chance of success isn’t great odds when it comes to our planet’s ability to support life, yet the government is doubling down on fossil fuel extraction precisely when it should be hitting the brakes. The announcement of these sales is particularly bewildering in light of President Biden’s executive actions on climate and the Bureau of Land Management’s clear legal discretion when it comes to leasing.”
In January the Biden administration paused new oil and gas leasing pending a review of the program. The renewed leasing plans, primarily in Wyoming and Colorado, follow a June court order that lifted the leasing pause but retained the administration’s authority over federal oil and gas.
Despite the leasing pause, the administration has approved more than 2,800 new permits to drill. That rate of 351 per month outpaces the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month in fiscal years 2018-2020.
Biden’s approval of drilling permits comes despite renewed IPCC warnings and several analyses showing that climate pollution from the world’s already-producing oil, gas and coal developments would push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Those analyses, including by the International Energy Agency, show that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires no new investment in fossil fuel projects.
“It’s appalling that the Interior Department plans to allow more climate-destroying oil and gas extraction when it has broad legal authority not to lease these public lands,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Judges in several recent court decisions have agreed that it’s illegal to allow any new leasing without looking at the potential harm to the climate, wildlife habitat and groundwater. Any analysis of the dangers of fracking and drilling will make undeniably clear that the federal fossil fuel program needs to end now.”
In January, 574 climate, conservation, Indigenous, religious and business groups sent then-President-elect Biden text for a proposed executive order to use the full force of the law to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters.
In April, more than 200 groups filed comments with the administration calling for a formal climate review of the federal fossil fuel programs under the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Lands Policy Management Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws.
“Federal lands and minerals are supposed to be managed in trust for the benefit of the public,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Addressing the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are very clearly top public priorities, and keeping federal lands and mineral deposits off the oil and gas auction block is a key step in solving both problems.”
“Protecting river flows across the West, which face overwhelming challenges from increased demand and reduced supply, is inextricably linked to management decisions on public lands,” said Kate Hudson, western U.S. advocacy coordinator with Waterkeeper Alliance. “Opening more than 700,000 acres in six Western states, including within the headwaters of the Colorado River — the water supply for 40 million people — to oil and gas extraction, and the inevitable impacts to our climate and rivers, heads us in exactly the wrong direction. It will only hasten the collapse of both.”
“These lease sales directly threaten water quality and the health of watersheds in Montana and for those living downstream who rely on clean waters,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It’s maddening to know that the administration understands the dangers these lease sales present to our waters and climate but is moving forward anyway…”
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate policy proposals in recent years.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroys habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have done immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Brian Sweeney is Communications Director with the Western Environmental Law Center
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