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A Real Climate Commitment Needs to Address Public Lands

WY mining_BLMPhoto courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Last week, the White House took a significant step toward addressing climate disruption when President Obama issued an executive order on climate preparedness. The order calls for the federal government to take steps to help American communities, families, and businesses prepare for the reality of the climate crisis and increasingly erratic weather events. This order comes on the heels of the ambitious climate plan laid out by the president earlier this summer. That plan included new energy efficiency standards for federal buildings and appliances, doubling of clean energy production by 2020, and using the full authority of the Clean Air Act to cut dangerous carbon pollution from power plants.

The executive order also makes clear that in addition to promoting programs that foster greater climate resilience, federal agencies shall “"focus on program and policy adjustments that promote . . . reductions to the sources of climate change." If the administration is serious about combating climate change, reframing how we use our public lands would be a good place to start. According to a recent report by Stratus Consulting for the Wilderness Society, 23 percent of the nation's greenhouse gases and 27 percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions can be directly attributed to fossil fuels extracted from public lands and waters.

Unfortunately, not all agencies have gotten the message. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently engaged in a coal leasing program that practically gives coal away for approximately $1 per ton. That not only cheats American taxpayers, who own both the land being stripmined and the coal that sits underneath, but also sets up a disastrous climate situation that is completely at odds with the administration's stated commitment. 

The BLM is now in the process of opening up nearly 5 billion tons of federal coal on public lands in the Powder River Basin, even as coal markets are tanking. In the first half of this year, more than 150 coal mines went idle because of low demand, and large coal companies are voluntarily delaying proposed expansions because coal prices are so low they can't make a profit. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and its allies are continuing to hold the BLM accountable for the climate consequences of its decisions. The Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and Powder River Basin Resource Council recently filed opening briefs in federal court challenging the BLM's decision to lease more than 2 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal through the Wright Area leases, which would result in 3.3 billion tons of carbon pollution when this coal is burned.

To really address the climate crisis. we must look at dirty fuels f,om both the supply and the demand side. Reducing pollution from the use of fossil fuels is an important step, but it must be paired with efforts to prevent the development of dirty energy in the first place. The 3.3 billion tons of carbon that would be released from a single coal lease on our public lands in Wyoming could undo more than half of the gains made by President Obama's new fuel-efficiency standards. Keeping dirty fuels in the ground on public lands is vital if the United States is to make progress on tackling climate change.

-- By Matt Kirby, Sierra Club

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