New Bill Would Keep Fossil Fuel Reserves On Public Lands In The Ground

Over the past year, environmentalists have called for keeping significant stores of the world’s remaining fossil fuel stores in the ground in order to curb climate change — a call that’s backed up by science. Now, a new bill aims to do just that.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), along with Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is introducing a bill Wednesday that would bar new leases on coal, gas, oil, and tar sands extraction on public lands in the U.S. The bill, titled the Keep it in the Ground Act, would also prohibit offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean and prohibit the renewal of leases that haven’t yet produced fossil fuels.

“This bill is about recognizing that the fossil fuel reserves that are on our public lands should be managed in the public interest, and the public interest is for us to help drive a transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy future,” Merkley said on a press call Tuesday. “We don’t have a lot of time to do this, so there’s an urgency to it, and a place that’s readily available for us to act is on the fossil fuels that are on our public lands.”

Merkley referenced findings from earlier this year that 80 percent of coal reserves — along with a third of global oil reserves and half of global natural gas reserves — should stay in the ground between now and 2050 in order to keep warming to 2°C, the limit that many scientists agree we need to stay below in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Banning new oil and gas leases on public lands, as the bill would do, would be a step towards this target.

“Many leases are exploited for decades — you have leases for gas that can go 30 years and leases for coal that can go 40 to 50 years, so doing new leases locks in fossil fuel extraction for decades to come,” Merkley said. “That’s not in the public interest.”

Fossil fuel production on federally-owned lands has emerged recently as a key topic in climate discussions. The issue of fracking has gained particular attention, as before this year, the U.S. hadn’t finalized rules on fracking on public lands. The Interior Department released regulations on the practice in March, but environmentalists have said the rules don’t go far enough to protect these lands from fracking.

Fossil fuels from public lands already make up a significant portion of the United States’ carbon emissions: according to a Center for American Progress and Wilderness Society report, oil, coal, and gas taken from federally-owned lands and waters are responsible for more than 20 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. According to one Bureau of Land Management report, 279 million acres of federal lands in the U.S. contain an estimated total of 31 billion barrels of oil and 231 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“These public lands are one of the easiest places for us to control the flow of carbon into the atmosphere,” Bill McKibben, founder of climate action group, said in the Tuesday call.

McKibben said the call to keep the majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground can be compared to Brazil’s efforts to combat deforestation. The country hasn’t done so perfectly, he said, but it’s made an effort to stop destroying the ecosystem.

“These coal and oil and gas deposits are the equivalent,” he said. “We have to leave them untouched for the health of the planet, and this bill is remarkable step in that direction.”

The bill comes soon after a group of Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the Interior Department asking for the costs of climate change to be included in coal leases on public lands. It also comes about a month after Royal Dutch Shell suspended its Arctic drilling plans, and amid significant opposition in Southeastern states to offshore drilling in the Atlantic.

In June, Merkley introduced a bill that would have prohibited any new or renewed leases in the Arctic. He said the public had a “huge response” to the idea of leaving the Arctic off-limits, and he thinks that view of protecting the Arctic will carry over to fossil fuel sources in public lands.

Merkley said he isn’t expecting much action on the bill under the current leadership in the House and Senate, but he thinks the bill will help generate conversation among both members of Congress, the public, and presidential candidates.

“Of you turn the clock back two years ago, this would have been an over-the-horizon reach, and now it’s not,” he said. “By laying out the bill, I think people are going to start saying, ‘Yes, this is logical that we not put out new leases that will lock in extraction for decades to come when we as humans on this planet must pivot away from fossil fuels.’”