Senator Elizabeth Warren announced this week that, if elected president, she would place a “total moratorium” on new oil and gas leases on federal land, spotlighting the US government’s major role in the fossil fuel industry.
Currently, there are 41 million acres of federal land, both onshore and offshore, under lease to oil and gas developers — to say nothing of the nearly 460,000 acres under lease for coal production. Emissions from fossil fuels extracted on federal land account for nearly 25 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint.
The Interior Department has discretion when it comes to where and when fossil fuel production occurs on federal lands. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, it should use that authority to bring federal land use more in line with the nation’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to net-zero emissions by mid-century. (Yes, despite Trump’s unrelenting and clamorous insistence to the contrary, the United States remains a party to the accord.)
That means a rapid wind-down of fossil fuel production on public lands.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios indicate that, in order to avert the most extreme harms of climate change, global emissions must peak practically immediately and decrease more than 10% annually. Global fossil fuel production must decline at roughly the same rate.
The United States should meet, if not exceed, the pace of a global wind-down. We are a wealthy nation that has already benefited disproportionately from fossil fuel extraction, and our economy is not heavily reliant on fossil fuels. In fact, the share of fossil fuel extraction in U.S. GDP is among the lowest in the world. Profits from oil production make up just 0.1% of U.S. GDP compared to an average 1% globally. Basic fairness suggests that it is on us to lead.
Certainly, industry influence and political inertia may complicate implementing a phase-out. But the actual process of devising a plan – one that is both consistent with the demands of climate protection and fair to communities who currently rely on fossil fuel production – can be quite straightforward.
First: start with the most carbon-intensive and costly fuels. Coal and especially polluting fuels, like heavy oil from California, peak now and drop precipitously. Remaining oil production peaks within the next few years, and gas production follows close behind.
Next: move fastest in the most resilient fossil fuel producing regions, such as those with more diverse economies. This allows for a more manageable wind-down in communities that rely heavily on fossil fuel extraction. No doubt, their transition to a low-carbon economy will remain difficult. However, careful planning – along with fiscal and institutional support – can ease the pain.
Finally: stop all extraction that threatens human rights or areas with unique conservation value. In the big picture, nearly all fossil fuel production directly undermines public health and the environment. But there are areas where these risks are particularly acute. For example, oil drilling on Alaska’s North Slope disrupts and potentially threatens the caribou that the Gwich’in Indians rely on for food and clothing.
These three principles, coupled with meaningful input from impacted communities and local and state governments, can lend structure to the otherwise seemingly insurmountable task of designing a total phase-out of fossil fuel extraction on federal land.
There is clear precedent for this type of ambitious action. President Obama removed much of the U.S. Arctic from leasing under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and his Administration’s Interior Department took preliminary steps to consider a “declining schedule” for coal production. Several other nations—including France, New Zealand and Spain—have already started phasing out fossil fuel extraction.
Admittedly, it is unlikely that the Trump administration, under its banner of “energy dominance”, will rise to the challenge. But future administrations will likely be compelled to act, as climate change moves from theoretical abstraction to everyday reality and global fossil fuel markets become increasingly unstable.
In the meantime, it is vital that members of the 116th Congress take the lead. The Green New Deal conversation, with its focus on the role of the federal government in achieving a just transition away from “greenhouse gas intensive industries”, is the perfect starting point.