US Could Slash Global Warming Emissions By Curbing Fossil Fuels Extraction On Public Lands

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The U.S. Department of the Interior this week announced new fracking regulations that will serve as the only federal rules enforcing any kind of safety measures on the controversial drilling technique when they go into effect in a few months.

The rules only apply to oil and gas wells on public lands, however, and most fracking is done on private or state-owned land. The Obama Administration says it is hoping to set an example for states to follow when setting their own fracking standards, but if that’s the case, the federal government actually has plenty of opportunity to lead by example when it comes to reining in carbon emissions from fossil fuel development.

According to a new report by the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society, there is “a blind spot in U.S. efforts to address climate change.” Fossil fuel extraction on public lands, the source of almost 30% of U.S. energy production, is responsible for more than a fifth of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon equivalent of having 280 million more cars on the road. But the DOI “has no comprehensive plan to measure, monitor, and reduce the total volume of GHG emissions that result from the leasing and development of federal energy resources.”

“The Department of the Interior has long been in the business of approving well after well, mine after mine, without assessing the impacts of its energy policies on U.S. carbon pollution levels,” Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow and director of the public lands project at the Center for American Progress, told FuelFix.

So if the Obama Administration really wants to set a strong example, the report says the first priority must be to fully account for all emissions from the coal, natural gas and oil extracted from lands and waters under its jurisdiction.

The authors of the report lay out a set of further steps the DOI should take, writing, “While the most important step is to understand the scope of the emissions that can be traced to public lands, there are significant opportunities to build off of these data to ensure that the causes of climate change from public lands are taken into account.”

Their proposed measures include charging a royalty rate equal to the full costs of carbon pollution and requiring oil and gas companies to pay for the right to vent and flare natural gas as well as take a variety of actions to reduce fugitive emissions at all stages of production and curtail the wasteful practices of venting and flaring excess natural gas.

There was a small decrease in the amount of fossil fuels produced from federal lands over the past three years and hence a decrease in emissions. The drop is due to decreased demand for coal and increased demand for natural gas, which produced far less carbon emissions when combusted, and the fact that the Obama Administration has expedited renewable energy projects like industrial scale solar.

But the report notes that coal from federal lands in the Powder River Basin, which stretches across Wyoming and Montana and provides 40% of all U.S. coal, is still responsible for more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Coal contributed 57% of all emissions from public lands and waters, according to the report.

“While it is clear that the United States is making progress in reducing GHG emissions and beginning to recognize the importance of natural resources in addressing climate change, total levels of emissions resulting from fossil-fuel production on America’s lands and waters remain uncertain at best,” the report concludes. “Thus, it is critical that the administration act to account for and reduce these emissions.”

Image Credit: claffra /

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