The hundreds of millions of acres of lands and nearly 1.7 billion acres of waters managed by the federal government are producing more fossil fuels than you might think. And more carbon pollution as well.
The Energy Information Administration released new data last week showing the amount of oil, gas, and coal that were extracted from public lands and waters. Last year alone, those areas owned by you, the taxpayer, contributed:
- 26.2 percent of our oil (596 million barrels)
– 17.8 percent of our natural gas (4,262 billion cubic feet)
– 42.1 percent of our coal (442 million short tons)
This has important implications for climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, this ThinkProgress analysis of the new EIA data shows that the total downstream emissions from these three fuels—after they have been combusted in power plants or vehicles—comes to approximately 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Using the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator,” we can see that these emissions are the equivalent of those produced by 427 coal-fired power plants. For comparison, there are 589 coal-fired power plants in the U.S.
In a similar analysis commissioned by The Wilderness Society last year, Stratus Consulting determined that the combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal produced from public lands and waters represents approximately 23 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, a fact that is often overlooked in discussions of federal land management and the drive to produce more domestic energy. As the Center for American Progress wrote in a recent issue brief:
The quantity and pace of fossil-fuel development on our federal lands and waters is at odds with the president’s goal of further reducing carbon pollution to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
Last November, the International Energy Agency stated in its World Energy Outlook that “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2° C goal” and avoid the worse effects of climate change. Additionally, while emissions from electricity generation in the U.S. have been decreasing, the Energy Information Administration predicts that they will increase at an average rate of 0.2 percent per year between 2011 and 2040. And last week, the government announced that it has doubled the “social cost of carbon”—the estimate of how much this pollution harms human health and the economy.
Addressing climate change is going to take the implementation of significant new policies, from regulations to stem pollution from power plants to the phasing down of a potent greenhouse gas known as hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs.
Federally-managed lands and waters also provide a unique opportunity to help address and mitigate the climate crisis. Because of the amount of fossil fuels that are extracted from them, as well as the fact that they are managed on behalf of American taxpayers, there are a number of policies that the administration can take on this front.
For example, the Center for American Progress has called for a “clean resources standard” to require that 35 percent of resources from public lands and waters used to produce electricity be renewable by 2035 (currently about 66 percent of these resources are coal). Additionally, the administration should finalize guidance for greenhouse gas emissions in federal environmental analyses, and include public lands and waters in this guidance. And, the royalty rate on coal from public lands should be increased to more accurately account for its externalized human health and economic costs.
Finally, the Obama administration should strive to better balance the use of our public lands for energy development and conservation—over the last four years, approximately 2.5 times more acres of public lands have been leased to oil and gas companies than have been permanently protected for future generations.