Does Obama’s order on climate overlook a major source of greenhouse gases?

Energy extracted from federal lands accounts for nearly one-quarter of all energy-related emissions.


On a day when President Obama released an executive order to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the federal government, advocacy groups published a report that shines a light on a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions that they say the federal government largely has ignored: the coal, natural gas and oil extracted from federal lands and waters.

The combustion of coal, oil and natural gas extracted from federal waters and land account for nearly a quarter of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the country, according to the report by the Wilderness Society and the Center for American Progress.

“This report shows a clear blind spot in the nation’s climate change strategy and underscores the need to account for the amount of greenhouse gases traced to public lands,” said Chase Huntley, Sr. director of government relations, the Wilderness Society, an environmental group.

Federally owned coal mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana alone accounts for 10 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions, when it is burned to produce electricity, according to the report.

The report comes out just days after, as HCN reported, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said it was time to start a national discussion about modernizing the federal coal program.

“Helping our nation cut carbon pollution should inform our decisions about where we develop, how we develop and what we develop,” Jewell said.

Reflecting the administration’s concerns about climate change, renewable energy projects on public lands have surged under President Obama. In six years, the Obama administration has approved 52 commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal projects on federal land. Together they will produce as much electricity as the Bureau of Reclamation’s 53 hydropower projects, including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams, according to Jewell -- which, in contrast, were built over a 100-year period.

The BLM also is working on a rule to restrict emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

But the department has yet to tackle the very complicated issue of whether a price should be put on federal fossil fuel resources to reflect their impact on climate change.

“It probably is time for us to have a thoughtful conversation: We are providing 40 percent of the nation’s coal off of public lands. And yet we have these responsibilities related to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, told HCN after a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday. “It’s a complex issue but it certainly deserves more attention.”

Kornze conceded that action on this issue might have to wait for a future administration.

“The conversation is important. So whether it’s this administration or a future administration, I don’t think the conversation will stop,” Kornze said.

The Wilderness Society and Center for American Progress report suggests a variety of ways to reduce greenhouse gases from fossil fuels extracted from federal lands, including raising royalty rates to account for the many costs of climate change to society -- such as more destructive natural disasters and health care costs from heat waves and air pollution.

Industry surely would resist any such initiatives. Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association said that federal courts repeatedly have rejected the argument that “climate effects” can be assessed against federally leased coal.  But as HCN has reported, last year a US district court stopped a mine expansion in Colorado, ruling that the federal government had not done enough to account for climate impacts from operating the mine and burning the coal that would come from it.

Still, Popovich says the benefits to the public of mining on federal land are clear. What can be verified is that the revenue from coal leases "provide great value to taxpayers and the jobs such sales provide to local communities.”

Representatives of the oil and gas industry questioned the reliability of Stratus Consulting, the firm that did the analysis for the report, which was not peer reviewed. They also pointed out that the shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation has helped the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so it makes no sense to penalize drilling companies with higher royalties.

The executive order President Obama announced Thursday directs the federal government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2008 to 2025, by:

  • Switching to clean energy sources for a quarter of its total energy consumption.
  • Improving the energy efficiency of federal buildings and vehicles.
  • Getting pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from companies that supply the government with everything from office products to computers.

There was no mention in the order of the emissions that come from fossil fuels drilled and mined from federal lands and waters.“It's a dangerous disconnect, for sure,” said Jeremy Nichols, from the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “What's all the more distressing is that the administration seems perfectly comfortable in touting the climate benefits of renewable energy on public lands, but for some reason refuses to even acknowledge the climate costs of fossil fuel energy development.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. She Tweets @ShogrenE.  

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