What Trump’s Climate Executive Order Means for Public Lands

Last week’s “energy independence” executive order restricts the nation’s ability to fight climate change. And it also puts our public lands at significant risk for pollution and destruction by promoting fossil energy development above all other uses.

Public lands have long been a blind spot in our nation’s efforts to address climate change, serving as the source for nearly 1/4 of all energy-related U.S. climate emissions. That’s because public lands have historically hosted much of the fossil fuel development in the country. In fact, in 2015, 40 percent of the nation’s coal, 21 percent of oil and 16 percent of natural gas came from public lands and waters.

President Trump’s new executive order makes clear that he plans to open up public lands to even more oil, gas, and coal extraction. It also undermines the federal government’s international and policy commitments to account for the climate impacts of energy development occurring on public lands.

Both of these impacts — increasing the amount of fossil fuels coming from public lands and reducing our ability to understand the climate implications of these decisions — will ensure the nation’s climate blind spot will only become worse.

Fossil fuel development that has occurred for decades on public lands has contributed to climate change, polluted our land and water, and scarred western landscapes. Despite these destructive results — and despite the strong public opposition to expanding fossil fuel energy development on public lands — the Trump administration is attempting to give even more of our land over to the oil, gas, and coal industries.

Let’s look at how the executive order does this — what it says and what it actually means — and what the real implications are for our public lands.

What is in the executive order?

Lifting the federal coal leasing moratorium

Public lands implications:

Many intergovernmental and non-partisan external groups have researched and reported that the outdated federal coal program must be modernized. To address the issue, the Obama administration issued a “pause” on new leases to enable review of, and ultimately fixes for, a very broken system.

Trapper Coal Mine. Credit: Mason Cummings/TWS

Now, with this executive order, the Trump administration has signaled that it wants to ramp up coal mining on public lands by lifting the pause. This is a clear indication that the White House thinks it is more important to try and prop up a failing industry even if it hurts taxpayers and our climate. It is irresponsible to let a broken program, one that rips off taxpayers, harms our environment and let’s the bad actors within the industry pollute our lands, continue. And yet, lifting the coal leasing moratorium does just that.

Review, rescind, or revise oil and gas regulations to increase development without oversight

Public lands implications:

The executive order requires the Interior Department to review, revise, or rescind a number of guidelines concerning where and how oil and gas can be developed on federal land. They are:

1. Guidelines governing how and whether drilling can occur on National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge lands. While some drilling has been grandfathered in on these types of public lands, these lands include some of the places that are most important for recreation and are most valued by Americans. The executive order would open some of these lands up to indiscriminate drilling with little oversight, threatening some of our national treasures.

2) Protections to ensure that when fracking on public lands occurs, it is done more safely. These guidelines required wastewater and chemicals to be stored in above-ground storage tanks and outlined how to ensure that the wells used are safe. Getting rid of the fracking rule would put our lands, public health and water quality at risk.

Oil and gas drill rig and flare. Credit: Mason Cummings/TWS

3) Regulations to reduce the amount of natural gas wasted during oil and gas drilling, and the associated methane pollution. The executive order mandated a review of the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane and Natural Gas Waste Rule, which would reduce the natural gas waste by ensuring operators reduce their use of intentionally releasing natural gas during operations and fix leaky infrastructure. In turn, this would improve air quality and help the climate, as methane is a greenhouse gas up to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Mandating that climate science and understanding climate impacts are ignored

Public lands implications:

While the ramping up of fossil fuel development on federal lands encouraged by this executive order is harmful enough, what has even broader consequences is its complete dismissal of policies that required scientific climate change analysis and plans to deal with the effects and consequences of climate change. To be dismissed as part of the executive order are:

1) Guidance to analyze the relationship between projects on public lands and climate change. All major projects go through an environmental analysis process, which allows for public input. The Obama administration had determined that analyzing climate impacts was crucial to determining how federal projects, including large-scale development on federal lands, should proceed. The guidance for how federal agencies should do this was developed after a federal court urged the federal government to account for climate impacts on federal lands.

The president’s executive order rescinds the guidance that required the federal government to analyze the climate impacts from large projects, as well as the impacts to large infrastructure projects from a changing climate. This means that the public, and the federal government, will not know how projects will impact the climate and will be flying blind while spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure.

Wildfires in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, Credit: NASA flickr

2) Memoranda instructing agencies how to mitigate climate change impacts. The Obama administration had made great strides in incorporating climate mitigation — the idea that when development occurs we should make sure that any impacts are dealt with up front however possible — in all planning on public lands.

This tactic is a crucial way of addressing problems ahead of time. But Trump’s energy executive order rescinds that guidance. Unfortunately, future problems won’t go away, but federal agencies’ ability to deal with them before they become disastrous is now undermined.

These decisions make no sense. We know that climate change causes and exacerbates major issues, on and off public lands, and deciding to just ignore those issues in the hopes that they go away on their own is not a solution. The problems will remain, but our preparedness for them is now gutted.


President Trump’s energy and climate executive order does even more damage than what’s laid out here, including significantly hurting our ability to meet our international climate goals through sending the Clean Power Plan back to the Environmental Protection Agency, but these are the actions that will have the most immediate and serious consequences for public lands.

Our public lands are our shared natural heritage, and they represent the democratic ideal: no matter where you are from, how rich or poor you are, or what your values are, you own a piece of some of the wildest, most treasured places in the country. The places national parks, wilderness areas, and other public lands hold in the national imagination makes it even more important that we take care of them and do everything we can to both protect them from climate change and ensure they don’t make the climate change problem even worse.

We could be using public lands to move toward a clean energy economy. We could rely on them to mitigate some of the worst consequences of climate change. We could use them to help important habitats adapt to the changing climate. But this administration wants to ignore the very real threats that climate change presents, and now our public lands are on the front lines of what’s at risk from a changing climate.

The recent executive order on energy and climate has significant consequences for the health and protection of our public lands, especially since we know that climate change is the most pressing threat to our public lands.

As The Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said in response to Trump’s executive order, “We should be ensuring that our public lands are part of the climate solution, but rolling back these policies will only make them part of the climate problem.”

This executive order is an unacceptable breach of the public trust that the federal government holds to properly manage lands that belong to all of us. We must continue to fight to ensure that our government officials know that we must respond to the threat of climate change with as many tools as possible, as expeditiously as possible.