How Our Public Land Have Become Carbon Polluters

Forty-two 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.

Trucks work in an open pit mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan

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.

Jessica Goad is manager of research and outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.
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