Federal fossil fuels programs contradict Obama’s climate goals

Despite the Keystone rejection, keep-it-in-the-ground activism is still a sideshow to the larger climate movement.


President Barack Obama delivers a statement rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline on November 6, 2015. His decision came more than seven years after the controversial project was first proposed.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline was a major success of a new wave of environmental activism aimed at fighting climate change by cutting off the supply of fossil fuels. It’s a radical departure from environmentalists’ traditional approach, which targets emissions of greenhouse gases from smoke stacks and tailpipes. When Obama announced his decision last week, he even echoed the catchphrase environmentalists use for this new strategy. “Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” he said.

The president justified his Keystone decision as a way to lead by example in advance of international climate change negotiations that start in Paris on November 30. If a treaty emerges from that gathering, it will focus on restraining greenhouse gas emissions — not preventing fossil fuel extraction. Talk of keeping fossil fuels in the ground likely will be relegated to demonstrations planned for before and after the conference. But several recent developments show the campaign has started to gain traction in the United States.

“It’s the next front in the fight against climate change,” says Franz Matzner of Natural Resources Defense Council.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and six other Democrats last week introduced legislation designed to ban new leases of federal fossil fuels from public land and offshore. It would also prohibit drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic. At a press conference outside the Capitol, Merkley conceded that his bill has no chance of passage with Republicans, and their fossil fuel energy backers, controlling Congress.  “It’s not going to happen in this moment, in this building; it’s going to depend on grassroots rallying across America,” he said.

Bill McKibben, a founder of the 350.org environmental group, commended the bill. For years, climate scientists have stressed that much of the known fossil fuel reserves in the U.S. and around the globe would have to remain unused to prevent dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “We know that we can’t dig up much more carbon; that we have to leave most of the coal, the oil and the gas that’s underground, underground,” McKibben said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic nomination for president, took a break from the campaign trail to show his support for the bill. Without mentioning the president or his administration, he pointed to the contradiction between the nation’s federal fossil fuels policies and its climate change aims. “You can’t talk the talk and say I’m concerned about climate change and then at the same time, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to extract huge amounts of oil or coal or gas from federal lands, you can’t do that,” he said at the press conference. Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, also has advocated keeping some fossil fuels in the ground under the oceans.

But Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association said the keep-it-in-the-ground movement “has not only no legs, it has no brain…. There is zero empirical evidence that keeping U.S. coal in the ground will have a significant impact on global warming. There is abundant evidence it would harm the economy — depriving state and federal taxpayers of billions of dollars in revenue, making us more dependent on natural gas for power generation, hence raising costs eventually, and paying for the jobless benefits.”

And, so far, the Obama administration hasn’t applied the keep-it-in-the-ground logic to federal fossil fuels.  Although the President’s Clean Power Plan is expected to reduce coal use over time, it would do so indirectly by constraining emissions. (Coal production is down in the U.S. But that is mostly because of competition from low-priced natural gas.)

Following Obama’s Keystone announcement, Jeremy Nichols of Wild EarthGuardians, tweeted that the president’s climate change legacy is not complete: “Next, time to keep our ‪#coal in the ground.” His group, as HCN chronicled, has led a litigation blitz against new coal, oil and gas leases across the West.

 The Interior Department held several listening sessions on the federal coal program this summer. “How do we manage our coal program in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives?” Secretary Sally Jewell said during the first session in Washington, DC. But the department has yet to announce any major reforms.

In fact, the U.S. and many other nations still prop up the fossil fuel industry. A new report from the Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank in the United Kingdom, and Oil Change International, a U.S. research and advocacy group focused on fossil fuels, calculates that the world’s top 20 industrial nations together provide $452 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuel production. The U.S., the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, provides over $20 billion in national fossil fuel production subsidies each year, primarily in the form of tax or royalty breaks that benefit oil and gas producers, and, to a lesser extent, coal companies.

For now, despite all the hoopla about Keystone, keep-it-in-the-ground activism is still largely a pep rally for bigger action on climate change.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's Washington, DC, correspondent.  

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