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Biden must get federal lands out of the fossil fuel business

by Tim Donaghy

January 20, 2021

Biden has an opportunity to fulfill a key campaign promise, put the brakes on the reckless fossil fuel expansion, and kick-start a just transition to a renewable economy for workers and communities.

Keep It in the Ground

Photo by Eamon Ryan.

We call on President Joe Biden to end new fossil fuel leases on federal lands and waters on his first day in office.

Biden has an opportunity to fulfill a key campaign promise, put the brakes on the reckless fossil fuel expansion, and kick-start a just transition to a renewable economy for workers and communities. Ending federal leasing would be a strong down payment on the ambitious policies we need to tackle the climate crisis.

Federal Lands

People living in America collectively own a significant percentage of U.S. land, especially west of the Mississippi River. This public ownership is a legacy of the militarized westward expansion of the country during the 1800s that led to the dispossession and genocide against numerous tribal nations. Biden has an opportunity to restore public lands after Trump’s attacks and rollbacks and make them into a true resource for all.

Some of these publicly-owned areas — such as national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas — are largely protected from development and commercial activity. Other areas, such as those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are intended for multiple-use and seek to “balance” recreation and conservation goals with coal-mining and oil & gas extraction.

The way federal leasing works is that the Department of the Interior holds periodic lease sales, where companies bid on specific parcels. Onshore leasing is administered by BLM, while offshore leasing is handled by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

The highest bidder then wins the rights to explore for fossil fuels on the parcel and, potentially, develop any resources found there. Operators must pay royalties on any coal, oil, or gas that is produced and sold. These revenues are then disbursed to state governments and various federal budgets, such as the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund.

Reducing Emissions

Roughly one-fourth of U.S. carbon emissions can be traced back to coal, oil, and gas extracted from federal lands and waters. A policy of no new fossil fuel leases would ensure that, going forward, a significant amount of carbon is kept in the ground. Reports from the Stockholm Environment Institute and Resources for the Future are in agreement that a federal leasing moratorium would reduce global emissions by around 100 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) per year.

During the 2019 primary campaign, ending federal fossil fuel leasing quickly became the consensus position among serious Democratic Presidential contenders. In his Climate Platform, Joe Biden promised to ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters” — an even broader promise than simply reforming the federal leasing process.

It is clear that the President has the legal authority to halt leasing on federal lands and keep fossil fuels in the ground. The Obama administration instituted a coal leasing moratorium and permanently withdrew parts of the Arctic and Atlantic offshore from future leasing.

Biden must not only pick up where his predecessor left off, but permanently end federal fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters to meet the demands of the climate catastrophe.

By itself, ending federal leasing won’t solve the climate crisis. It won’t even be enough to eliminate emissions from federal lands before 2040, meaning that additional action will be needed to address production and emissions from existing leases. But a leasing ban will be a valuable contribution to a more comprehensive climate policy — and will send a powerful signal that the federal government will no longer subsidize dependence on fossil fuels.

Keep it the Ground Rally at White House in Washington D.C.

Activists deliver more than 1 million petition signatures to the White House demanding that the Obama administration keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Just Transition

Any policy to rein in federal leasing must go hand in hand with strong policies to protect industry workers and states that are financially dependent on oil. Industry lobbyists and trade groups are already using the prospect of lost jobs and lost tax revenues to generate controversy around Biden’s plans and to slow down necessary climate action.

Among oil producing states, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota are the top recipients of revenues from federal onshore drilling. New Mexico received over $1 billion in onshore oil funds in 2019 thanks to the drilling boom in the Permian Basin. Although Texas is by far the largest oil producer in the United States, it has comparatively little federal land. However, the four Gulf states — Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi — also receive a percentage of federal offshore revenues.

If nothing else were done, all of these states would see their budgets cut by a leasing moratorium, and oil industry workers could be left high and dry. But thankfully, these are fixable problems and Biden should also put in place strong policies to ensure that workers and communities are left better off through the energy transition.

Joe Biden has a historic opportunity to make real progress on climate change in his first 100 days, and he should move quickly and decisively, knowing that each year of delay puts the planet and people in danger. Ending federal fossil fuel leasing is a key piece of the puzzle, but more will obviously be needed to create a Green New Deal, a managed decline of fossil fuels, and a just transition for all.

Take action now—Tell President-Elect Biden to ban new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters

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Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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