The American people entrust our federal government to manage our nation’s vast and glorious public lands. These lands include our parks, our wildlife refuges, and forests that keep our air and water clean. Regardless of the party in power, the Department of the Interior is responsible for these special places and ensuring that they remain available to be enjoyed now and by future generations.
A less prominent, but significant component of this duty, is overseeing and approving the development of energy resources on these lands. As a result, the federal government has become one of the world’s largest energy asset managers. The Department of the Interior manages more than 2.4 billion acres of subsurface mineral rights including energy resources like coal, crude oil and natural gas.
Combined, energy development on federal lands and waters accounted for 40 percent of all coal, 24 percent of all crude oil, and 14 percent of natural gas produced in the United States in 2016. Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with these publicly owned fossil fuel resources amount to the equivalent of approximately 20 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Even in the best of circumstances, managing our nation’s energy portfolio is complicated and consequential. I served as the chief federal sustainability officer under President Barack Obama and can speak firsthand about the difficult balance that must be struck between ensuring that we develop the homegrown energy we need, often on public lands, while also upholding our responsibility to ensure that those land are protected.
Unfortunately, as we all know, our current administration seems to embrace a drill everywhere philosophy. We gained important insight into just how far they will go last month, when a federal judge ruled that the administration violated federal law when it moved to advance coal leases in the Powder River Basin, which covers portions of Montana and Wyoming and is estimated to have about 40 percent of the nation’s coal reserves beneath it.
While Judge Brian Morris’ decision is significant, it also underscores the shortcomings that exist within our laws. The judge found considerable fault in the process undertaken for these leases, including forgoing legally required analysis of climate impacts resulting from the leases, but ultimately he did not halt the leases from going forward.
In order to protect our lands and consider our climate risk, we must pass legislation that provides wider accountability and information to the public on the carbon impacts of unmitigated fossil energy development. This is not a partisan issue. Our nation has a long, and proud history of bipartisan support for protecting our nation’s public lands to ensure they are available for generations to come.
Fortunately, that trend continues regarding this issue as well. H.R. 4126, the Transparency in Energy Production Act, is sponsored by seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four Democrats and three Republicans, and would require the federal government to publicly disclose the amounts of fossil fuel production and greenhouse gas emissions that result from energy generated on public lands.
As our current administration demonstrates, we should not allow loopholes to remain that allow oil and gas interests to work, often behind closed doors, with senior administration officials to quickly approve energy leases on public lands that destroy our nation’s parks and exacerbate climate change. Passing H.R. 4126 represents an important step in preventing similar episodes from happening in the future and I strongly urge Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress to work together, in a bipartisan fashion, to pass it.
Jon Powers is co-founder and president of CleanCapital and founding member of the Business Coalition for Conservation and Climate. Before entering the private sector, he served as federal chief sustainability officer under President Barack Obama.
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