For several decades, the most egregious U.S. presidential scandal concerned Teapot Dome, an oil field in Wyoming. There, in the 1920s, President Warren Harding had given away public land to Sinclair Oil and the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company (later Standard Oil), helping to cement the oil industry’s dominance in the West.
Today’s presidential missteps occur at an entirely different scale, but they still include fossil fuels. The recent revelation that Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments were shrunk to allow for more oil and coal extraction provides the latest example. Further, by opening new areas of Utah, Wyoming, California and the rest of the West for more oil and coal, President Trump’s administration is dooming not only the region but, the world. This should be its own scandal.
A new study in the research journal Climatic Change shows the scale of how public lands are still used to worsen the climate catastrophe. We found that about one-quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions arise from burning fossil fuels pulled from public soil. That means that more CO2 emissions arise from publicly owned fossil fuels in the U.S. than from the entire CO2 emissions of every other country but China, India and Russia.
But more importantly, we found that these fossil fuels aren’t needed. Were the federal government to stop issuing new leases, whether at Bureau of Land Management offices in the west or Bureau of Ocean Energy Management offices in Washington, federal fossil fuel production — and emissions thereof — would gradually decline, lessening our culpability for climate change, and aiding the transition to plentiful, renewable energy.
The study also challenges the practice of not assessing CO2 in the course of the environmental reviews necessary before extraction can begin. Using the myth of “perfect substitution,” many proponents of new coal mines or oil fields in the West have argued that there’s no need to mitigate or even consider any carbon dioxide from burning these fuels because, if their particular projects didn’t produce oil or coal, another producer surely would, one for one.
A U.S. appeals court judge in Denver ruled this belief “irrational” for coal, but the economics of how supply and demand interact for fossil fuels has remained obscure, at least for some. This new study should clarify the situation for good, as it quantifies how each unit of coal or oil left in the ground clearly leads to reductions in burning of that fuel and, from there, fewer climate damages.
For example, as we describe in the article, for each ton of coal no longer extracted from federal lands, national coal consumption would drop by nearly 0.7 tons, and with a corresponding reduction in CO2 emissions from burning coal.
There are many possible solutions to the climate consequences of mining fossil fuels from public lands. One would be through legislation, as proposed by Sens. Merkley, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to stop issuing new fossil fuel leases altogether. Another would be to charge considerably more for each lease, barrel of oil or ton of coal extracted, to account for the multiple harms to people that arise.
Charging such an added fee, called a royalty, could also create a stockpile of funds to help fossil fuel workers transition over time to careers that are less damaging to the climate, as well as to help protect these workers from being left, stranded, if and when declining profits lead the fossil fuel companies to shutter the coal mines and oil wells.
There is also the potential for local action, especially while new, climate-based policy from the federal government is lacking. For example, one Utah author attempted to buy up the leases for conservation instead of resource extraction, and the lieutenant governor in California is considering withholding state-level permits for new oil drilling in federal waters.
There are always tradeoffs in any debate over how to use public resources. But we can be sure that, in the long term, very little good can come from fossil fuel dominance. It is past time to keep our public lands – indeed all lands – out of the hands of the fossil fuel industry and the irreversible climate damages it brings.
Peter Erickson is a senior scientist in the Seattle office of the Stockholm Environment Institute. His research focuses on fossil fuels and climate change.