The Obama administration’s chief public land and continental shelf manager did not have any encouraging words Wednesday about a proposal to end federal oil and coal leasing.
Responding informally to a letter from more than 400 organizations and individuals concerned about anthropogenic climate change that was delivered Tuesday to the White House, secretary of the interior Sally Jewell rejected the idea of eliminating fossil fuel production on the federal estate because the country “continues to be dependent on fossil fuels.”
“Right now, we are sitting under lights that are most likely powered by coal, in the East,” she said, according to The Hill newspaper. “Maybe some of you walked here, but most of you probably burned some fossil fuels in one way or another to get here. There are millions of jobs in this country that are dependent on these industries, and you can’t just cut it off overnight and expect to have an economy that is, in fact, the leader in the world.”
Environmental group leaders roundly criticized Jewell’s comments.
“This is a straw man, and Secretary Jewell knows it,” May Boeve, the executive director at 350.org said in a statement. “Absolutely no one is suggesting that we can end society’s reliance on fossil fuel use tomorrow, but that’s no excuse for failing to do our part today.”
Taylor McKinnon, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, explained that current leasing plans account for “decades’ worth” of oil and coal, “more than can ever be safely burned.”
“The fact that society uses fossil fuels doesn’t obviate the need to quickly de-carbonize and stop digging them up,” McKinnon said. “Sixty-seven million acres of public land and ocean are already leased to industry. Those contain 43 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution. And this is atop 42 million more acres proposed by her agency on Friday.”
McKinnon was referring to two oil and gas exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico that were proposed Sept. 11 by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
If approved, those leases could result in the production of at least 531 million barrels of oil and more than two trillion cubic feet of natural gas. They would cover more than 40 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
A report released last month by Eco-Shift Consulting on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth concluded that combustion of the remaining fossil fuels available on the federal estate would result in the equivalent as much as 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide being discharged to the atmosphere.
“This is equivalent to 13 times global carbon emissions in 2014 or annual emissions from 118,000 coal-fired power plants,” the report said.
President Barack Obama probably does have the authority to terminate future fossil fuel leases, both on the public lands and offshore. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 gives the President essentially unilateral authority to remove areas of the OCS from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, while the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires only some reporting and analysis requirements as a prerequisite to executive authority to remove Bureau of Land Management acreage from energy leasing.
The Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987 grants to BLM and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service discretion to decide whether to permit oil and gas leasing. Similarly, the Mineral Leasing Act, as amended by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, affords both the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture wide latitude on the question whether to allow coal mining on BLM and USDA Forest Service land:
“The secretary of the interior is authorized to divide any lands subject to this Act which have been classified for coal leasing into leasing tracts of such size as the secretary finds appropriate and in the public interests and which will permit the mining of all coal that can be economically extracted in such tract and thereafter the secretary shall, in his or her discretion, upon the request of any qualified applicant or on his or her own motion, from time to time, offer such lands for leasing and shall award leases thereon by competitive bidding.”
The federal public lands comprise about 650 million acres, while the continental shelf exceeds 1.7 billion acres. The amount of federal public land leased for oil, gas, and coal extraction is about 55 times as large as Grand Canyon National Park.
The Sept. 15 letter to Obama by the coalition writing under the name “Keep It in the Ground” argued that Washington will not be able to meet any meaningful international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if federal fossil fuel leasing is not terminated.
“The science is clear that, to maintain a good chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of warming, the world must keep the vast majority of its remaining fossil fuels in the ground,” the letter said. “Federal fossil fuels — those that you control — are the natural place to begin. Each new federal fossil fuel lease opens new deposits for development that should be deemed unburnable. By placing those deposits off limits, stopping new leasing would help align your administration’s energy policy with a safer climate future and global carbon budgets.”