A report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress finds that our nation’s forests, parks, grasslands, and other onshore public lands in the continental United States are the source of 4.5 times more carbon pollution than they are able to naturally absorb.
This imbalance is primarily due to the large quantities of coal, oil, and natural gas that are extracted from public lands. 42.1 percent of the country’s coal, 26.2 percent of its oil, and 17.8 percent of its natural gas are currently sourced from public lands both onshore and offshore.
Using data from the United States Geological Survey and Stratus Consulting, the CAP analysis determined that when combusted, fossil fuels extracted from public lands are the source of 1,154 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, while those same lands absorb only 259 million metric tons every year. As the authors wrote, the carbon sink that should be our national parks, forests, and other public lands is now “clogged.”
These findings are important considering that the first tenet of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action plan is to “cut carbon pollution in America.” The president’s “all of the above energy” plan, however, calls for continued expansion of mining and drilling on the 700 million acres of public lands managed by the federal government — contributing to high levels of carbon pollution.
The Bureau of Land Management, for example, attempted to sell 163 million tons of coal in September, and the agency continues to hold oil and gas lease sales in most Western states every quarter, including an upcoming lease sale for oil and natural gas North Dakota on January 28, 2014. But these energy decisions are apparently being made outside the bounds of the president’s climate plan. As CAP writes:
Without a framework for reducing carbon emissions on public lands, our nation’s natural resource strategy will continue to be guided by ad hoc policies that are internally contradictory and counter to the nation’s climate objectives.
With that in mind, the authors call for the Obama administration (namely Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) to design and establish a carbon emissions reduction plan for public lands and waters. This plan would include measures to both help public lands sequester carbon (protecting areas with high carbon absorption capacity, restoring native ecosystems, etc.) and to decrease the amount of carbon pollution from the fossil fuels that are extracted from them.
Mitt Romney recently released his energy plan, which focuses extensively on turning energy development on federal public lands over to the states. If states are determined to aggressively push fossil energy development, giving oversight of mining and drilling to them could put some of our special places at risk. As the New York Timesput it:
The purposes [of federal public lands], under established law, are various: recreation, preservation, resource development. States, as a rule, tend to be interested mainly in resource development. In the energy future envisioned by Mr. Romney, that is precisely what would prevail.
Here are five places that could be at risk under a Romney energy plan:
- Grand Canyon National Park: Even though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar protected one million acres around the Grand Canyon from mining last January, the decision applied only to new claims. About 3,500 existing uranium claims may still be valid, which could result in up to 11 uranium mines on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands near the canyon. Under a Romney energy plan, the decision to permit these new mines would be made by the state of Arizona and under its rules and regulations. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer would likely give the go-ahead to new mining, as she called Salazar’s decision in January “excessive and unnecessary regulation.” Watch a short documentary about the issue:
- Bryce Canyon National Park: A strip coal mine is currently being proposed on Bureau of Land Management lands ten miles from the park, but the National Park Service warned that it would “likely result in negative impacts to park resourcesand visitors” and especially to air quality and scenery. Under the Romney energy plan, the state of Utah would be responsible for permitting and overseeing the new mine. Chances are it would be permitted, as Utah already gave the go-aheadto a coal mine right next to the proposed one. Additionally, in 2010, Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R) accepted a $10,000 political donation from the company interested in developing the new mine. Watch a short video about the issue:
- Arches National Park: The final hours of the George W. Bush presidency saw the issuance of 77 oil and gas leases very close to national parks, including Arches. In January 2009, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled the leases, saying that they had been rushed. But that decision is not permanent — if and the oil and gas industry proposed drilling there again, these and other leases on the edges of Arches could move forward. And the state of Utah would probably accept those industry demands, since its governor and legislature this year called for title to all 30 million acres of public lands to “help foster economic development.”
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: North Dakota is ground zero for the Bakken oil boom, which is pressing up against this national park where President Theodore Roosevelt developed much of his conservation ethic. Already drilling rigs can be seen from within the park. And even more could be built if a proposed bridge is permitted that could open up even more of the adjacent Little Missouri Grasslands (managed by the Forest Service) to oil and gas drilling. If such drilling decisions were turned over to North Dakota, they would likely be approved, considering the boon that oil has been to the state’s economy.
- Grand Teton National Park: This park borders the Bridger-Teton National Forest, home to significant natural gas resources. Currently the Forest Service is determining whether to allow the drilling of up to 136 natural gas wells on its lands, which could have a number of impacts on the park. Grand Teton National Park’s superintendent expressed concerns about “degradation of visibility” from the project, and other officials have worried about impacts on the park’s wildlife. If this decision were turned over to the state under the Romney energy plan, the project could potentially go forward. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has stated that the company has “valid existing rights.” Watch a short documentary about the issue:
Even more worryingly, Romney’s plan is extremely vague when it comes to what might happeninside of parks. The text of the plan says that “lands specially designated off-limits” are exempt from being turned over to the states. But what exactly does this mean? Does it mean places that are currently set off limits by law, like national parks and wilderness areas? Or does it mean only places that a Romney/Ryan administration would set off limits, thereby undoing decades’ worth of land protections?
Would Romney go so far as to try to drill in our national parks?