Time for public lands to step up to the climate plate

Coal’s demise highlights the necessity of Interior Department action to reduce carbon emissions

Tyler McIntosh
Jan 10, 2020 · 9 min read
When we think of public lands, many of us envision beautiful, sprawling landscapes. With the right management, these landscapes can also be part of the climate solution. Basin and Range National Monument | Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

Although the coal industry is in free-fall, a recent report has found that overall US greenhouse gas emissions are only down by 2.1 percent. The report highlights the limitations of relying on coal’s demise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the necessity of federal policy changes. Urgent action from the Department of the Interior must be a keystone of policy changes, as fossil fuels extracted from public lands create a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the Trump Administration continues to give handouts to the drilling and mining industries, proposals such as Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s recent climate bill demonstrate the wide variety of ways that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the rest of the Department could step up to the plate to help reduce US emissions and protect the lands they are tasked with managing.

The United States is the second-largest emitter of human-produced greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide (CO₂) and methane, that are responsible for climate change. Mounting climate change impacts can be felt across the country, and include lengthened and more intense wildfire seasons, decreased snowpack, drought, impacts on wildlife, extreme weather events, heat waves, and sea-level rise. Left unchecked, climate change may cost trillions of dollars. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to preventing further climate change.

Climate change is particularly relevant to public land management, as many of these lands are impacted more rapidly than the rest of the country. As such, the Department of the Interior should be seriously considering the eventual impacts on public lands of fossil fuels extracted on those same public lands. However, the Interior Department under Secretary Bernhardt has consistently ignored the relevance of climate to their work as stewards and land managers, even after warnings from scientists within the Department that the consequences of ignoring climate change impacts on public lands may be severe.

Droughts, exacerbated by climate change, negatively impact ecosystems on public lands | Jose Antonio Alba

The recent report from Rhodium Group, a private research group that studies energy markets and climate policy, found that power sector greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 10 percent last year due to an 18 percent decrease in coal usage. However, nearly all other sectors of the economy remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels, with their emissions either fairly steady or increasing. Rhodium researchers point out that large-scale fuel substitution and significant advances in federal policy will be required to drive meaningful change.

Natural gas, which is now 30 percent cheaper than coal, is responsible for most of the decrease in coal use. Many have touted natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ to a clean energy future due to its lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal. However, its extensive problems mean that any benefits over coal are likely negligible. Natural gas contains high percentages of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change 84 times more than CO₂ over a 20 year period, and 28 times more over a 100 year period. Research has shown that methane emissions are heavily underreported by the natural gas industry.

Flaring in oil and gas fields | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Natural gas leaks, flaring, and venting are all major climate concerns. Studies have found that infrastructure leaks 2.3 percent of natural gas into the atmosphere before being burned, which is about 60 percent higher than earlier Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Research suggests that natural gas power plants could actually be worse for the climate than coal if leakage rises above 4 percent. While leaks are accidental, producers also regularly flare or vent excess natural gas produced during drilling directly into the atmosphere. In just the first quarter of 2019, the Permian and Bakken drilling basins reported flaring or venting more natural gas than the countries of Israel, Hungary, or Romania use in a year. However, satellite data shows that producers in the Permian Basin may flare up to two times more gas than they report. These issues are in addition to massive blowout events that, on their own, can release as much methane as small countries do over the course of a year.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) calls themselves the climate solution, but even under the strictest of regulations their claims would be overblown; and the API has lobbied in the past to reduce methane emission restrictions on public lands. To address US emissions from sectors other than power generation, the country will need to address its regulation and use of natural gas and other fossil fuels, many of which are produced on public lands.

Research from the U.S. Geological Survey has found that public lands and waters are the source of nearly 25 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that those lands would rank fifth in the world for emissions if they were their own country. As the source of many eventual greenhouse gas emissions, public lands need to be a part of any emissions reduction plan.

Public lands produce a quarter of US emissions, but many of the regions that have already been disturbed are ripe for renewable energy development. Jonah Field, WY | EcoFlight

A possible roadmap

A recently proposed bill by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, The American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act, highlights options for leveraging public lands to combat climate change. The culmination of a year of hearings, roundtables, and forums, the bill would direct Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from public lands and waters by 2040. The bill’s primary methods include limiting development of fossil fuels on public lands, expanding renewable energy development, managing land to absorb more carbon, and using public lands for other negative-emissions technologies. Rather than suggesting a complete drilling ban, the bill proposes a temporary fossil fuel leasing moratorium while agencies create plans to achieve the bill’s goals. Additionally, the legislation would increase royalties and leasing fees on resource extraction in order to help fossil fuel industry reliant communities transition their economy. Oil and gas leasing fees haven’t been increased in decades, and 74 percent of western voters support increasing the royalties that companies pay to taxpayers for fossil fuel extraction on public land.

Renewable energy opportunities

Renewable energy options such as solar and wind energy are continuing to drop in cost and skyrocket in use across the world. Polling shows that 78 percent of Western voters support increasing investment in renewable resource development. However, public lands currently supply only 5 percent of the country’s utility-scale solar and wind energy. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands contain about 20 million acres of renewable potential for both solar and wind energy development, much of which is untapped. BLM’s current utility-scale solar and wind projects provide around 9,500 megawatts of energy. But if the BLM’s Solar Energy Zones, which are areas of significant potential with low environmental conflicts, were fully developed, these zones alone could produce at least 27,000 megawatts. There is a huge opportunity to expand renewable energy development on appropriate public lands while ensuring that environmental regulations and safeguards are in place. This is especially the case in regions where the land has already been disturbed by resource extraction or human development. As a result of its low-footprint and renewable nature, clean energy generation should be seen as an attractive option for the BLM and Forest Service to fulfill their multiple use and sustainable yield mandates.

Crescent Dunes Solar Array in Nevada is on Bureau of Land Management lands | Bureau of Land Management Nevada

Sequestration opportunities

Public lands provide an opportunity to sequester (or absorb) more carbon dioxide than they currently do. Research has demonstrated that public lands only sequester about 3 percent of the country’s emissions in soil and vegetation. Soils form one of the largest concentrations of carbon on the planet, and research suggests that restoring degraded areas across the world could result in annual sequestration of 3.5 to 11 billion tons of CO₂. In the United States, the Tongass National Forest represents one of the greatest concentrations of sequestered CO₂. Such valuable carbon sinks should be expanded and protected, rather than made more vulnerable to deforestation.

Public land managers in the United States have a number of approaches available to increase soil and vegetation sequestration. However, these approaches will need to be used quickly: carbon sequestration opportunities will face increasing challenges as climate change threatens national forests and soils through wildfires, disease, insect outbreaks, and erosion.

Tongass National Forest in Alaska is one of the largest carbon sinks in the United States | Alan Wu

Rather than seeking climate-friendly solutions or working toward a balanced agenda, the Interior Department under Secretary Bernhardt has followed a strict fossil fuel dominance agenda. Although the Trump administration recently announced that it was advancing renewables projects, many have pointed out that the administration has little choice in the matter now that solar technology is up to scale. Interior’s climate track-record remains extremely poor, and Bernhardt has made it clear that he is unconcerned with climate change. The Department’s actions under the current administration have included virtually non-stop handouts to the drilling and mining industry, locking up huge swaths of the American West for oil and gas extraction rather than renewable energy development or sequestration management, and eliminating crucial emissions regulations.

Emissions deregulation

Rhodium Group’s recent report states that “there are low-cost technology solutions to reduce oil and gas methane emissions, but their deployment at scale requires strengthening regulations that the Trump Administration instead has been weakening.” Although most emissions regulatory rollbacks have occurred within Trump’s EPA, Interior has played a role through allowing increased leaking, venting, and flaring of methane from drilling activity on federal and tribal lands. Overturning the Obama-era methane reduction rule will negate an expected 35 percent decrease in methane flaring. It is likely that the Department’s deregulatory actions will result in further increased methane release rates on public lands, heavily reducing any climate benefits that the natural gas industry may tout having over coal.

Oil and gas development on public lands will likely have increased emissions due to deregulation | Bureau of Land Management

It is clear that the United States must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the original source of a quarter of US emissions, public lands are a part of the problem, and can become an essential part of the solution. Secretary Bernhardt and the Interior Department have powerful tools in their hands in the form of carbon sequestration and renewable energy development. Unfortunately, under the Trump administration the agency has ignored climate solutions in favor of a fossil fuel dominance agenda involving methane regulation rollbacks, drilling industry handouts, and a broken oil and gas leasing system, all of which minimize any emissions reductions from coal’s demise.

It is time that our public land managers step up to the plate and move towards an emissions-aware land management system that takes into account the impact of climate change on public lands and the role of public lands in the climate crisis.


Public lands and the outdoors, from the Center for Western Priorities