Study: Halting federal public-lands leases for oil, gas and coal — including in Utah — would reduce climate-changing emissions

In the final years of the Obama administration, climate activists rallied hard against new leasing of federal oil, gas and coal reserves, arguing that leaving those resources on U.S. public lands undeveloped would reduce carbon emissions and slow planetary warming.

The “keep it in the ground” movement now has zero traction with President Donald Trump, whose administration is committed to “American energy dominance.” But geologist and researcher Peter Erickson was still curious about whether ending federal energy leases would have any effect in the overall emissions of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Erickson’s analysis, published last month in the journal Climatic Change, shows that such a policy would reduce U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by 5 percent, or 280 million tons annually by 2030.

The reduction equals nearly one-fifth of the reductions the United States had pledged to achieve under the Paris climate accord — before Trump revoked U.S. participation in the landmark agreement.

Erickson called that impact “substantial,“ especially on a global level.

“The scale of the challenge is so substantial, there is no silver bullet,” said Erickson, a Seattle-based scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute. “You will need a lot of actions to get there.

“It would have a real small effect in the short term, but in long term it would have a bigger and bigger effect because by 2030 [energy producers] would need new federal leases,” he said.

About 40 percent of current U.S. coal production currently comes off federal leases, while about one-fifth and one-sixth on oil and gas, respectively, is federal, according to Erickson.

But in Utah, a far higher share of the fossil fuel produced in Utah comes from federal and tribal leases, according to the Utah Geological Survey. For coal, the federal share is 86 percent; 63 percent for oil; and 70 percent for natural gas.

Western coal, in particular, plays an important role in power generation since so many plants are designed specifically for the sub-bituminous coal strip mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Should that coal become unavailable, Erickson said, plant operators would have to look elsewhere for more expensive substitutes or convert to natural gas, which emits half the carbon dioxide.

The study published in Climate Change also exposed flaws in some environmental reviews that assume fossil fuels not produced through a federal lease would be obtained from other sources.

“Our findings help cast aside the irrational belief in perfect substitution or, as some have called it, ‘whack-a-mole.’ In most cases, leaving coal or oil resources undeveloped will lead to global CO2 benefits,” said Michael Lazarus, co-author and director of SEI’s U.S. Center.

The study concluded that every barrel of federal oil left undeveloped would lead to a half-barrel drop in global oil consumption.

“This confirms that the federal government involvement [in energy leasing] needs to be reassessed,” said Jeremy Nichols, energy policy director for WildEarth Guardians and a proponent of ending federal leasing. “We have been arguing that studies like this mean something on the ground translates into decisions that are mindful of climate impacts from leasing.”

The study is being released as the Interior Department prepares for the largest sale of off-shore oil and gas leases in history, as well as a big uptick in the number of federal acres offered for leasing in Western states.

Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Bureau of Land Management has prioritized making more public land available for energy development and easing obstacles to development. The agency’s next Utah lease auction is March 20 and will target land in Grand and San Juan counties, including some parcels next to Hoveneep and Canyon of the Ancients national monuments.

The Stockholm study analyzed the impacts of the policies laid out in the “Keep It in the Ground Act,” introduced in Congress three years ago and currently sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley, of Vermont and Oregon respectively.

It concluded that were the bill enacted, fossil fuel production from federal leases would drop 37 percent by 2030, resulting in slightly higher fuel prices, adding about $20 to the cost of fossil fuels that release 1 ton of carbon dioxide.

An international think tank affiliated with Tufts University, Stockholm receives funding from numerous sources including the United Nations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several foundations. The environmental group Friends of the Earth funded the Erickson study.