Keep publicly owned fossil fuel deposits in the ground
© WildEarth Guardians

Last week, Sens. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDe Blasio headed to Iowa to speak at political fundraiser Yes, spills happen — but pipelines are still the safest way to move oil Why sexual harassment discussions include lawmakers talking about Bill Clinton’s past MORE (I-Vt.), Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Democrats introduce bill to block Trump's refugee ban Overnight Defense: Army secretary easily confirmed | Army denies changing mental health standards | US to trim peacekeeping funds | House passes bill to speed up approval of battlefield medicines Senate approves Trump's Army pick MORE (D-Ore.) and five other co-sponsors introduced the Keep it in the Ground Act, which would end all new leasing of coal, oil and gas on public lands and waters. The previous day, local residents in Wyoming — the nation's leading exporter of fossil fuels — held a protest in Cheyenne against the Bureau of Land Management's most recent oil and gas lease auction, the first such protest in the history of the state. These two disparate actions, on opposite sides of the country, focused on the same goal: Making real progress to address climate change and amplifying the national debate over whether the federal government should be in the fossil fuels business at all.

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For more than a century, the fossil-fuel industry has treated our public lands like they own them. Individual oil and gas corporations — not federal agencies — decide which parcels of land are nominated for oil and gas leasing. As long as the lands in question are available for oil and gas leasing (and most are), the nominated parcels are sold to the highest bidder (sometimes the only bidder) at quarterly auctions. Corporations then design the oil and gas fields to be built on public lands, sometimes with relatively minor adjustments by the agency that manages the land. So from cradle to grave, oil and gas corporations get to decide where and how to industrialize our public lands.

This fox-designing-the-henhouse framework has resulted in major problems for public lands out West, and for neighboring communities. Open spaces have turned into industrial zones, and recreationists, from hunters to birdwatchers, have seen favorite public lands destroyed. Habitat fragmentation and industrial disturbance from oil and gas operations have permanently eliminated wildlife habitats, decimating populations to the point where wildlife has suffered major declines, from sage grouse and Brewer's sparrows to pronghorns and mule deer.

Volatile organic compounds wafting off wellfield storage tanks are causing smog so severe that air pollution is sometimes actually worse in Pinedale, Wyo. (population 1,977) than in the Los Angeles metroplex (population 18.5 million). The clean waters of the West have been fouled, from oil spills on the Yellowstone River to salty discharge into the Powder River Basin to the poisoning of underground aquifers associated with fracking.

The impact of the oil industry on Western communities is real and severe. But that impact doesn't even consider the climate consequences of burning off massive deposits of underground carbon reserves and pumping carbon dioxide and fugitive methane into the atmosphere. That's a global, rather than a local, catastrophe.

The changing climate means warming, acidifying seas, leading not only to bleaching coral reefs and stricken marine ecosystems but also to rising sea levels and more frequent and severe hurricanes and other storms. Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina each visited billions of dollars in damage on coastal U.S. cities, not to mention the lives lost and homes destroyed — losses that can never be mitigated. Now that the consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels are becoming starkly obvious, it is clear that the public interest would best be served by transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources as rapidly as possible.

Which brings us back to the protestors in Wyoming with "Keep it in the Ground" banners. They pointed out, correctly, that federal deposits of oil, gas and coal belong to all citizens equally, not to the fossil-fuel industry. The best interests of the public should come first and foremost in deciding whether or not these public resources should be leased at all for future extraction and combustion.

The oil industry already controls federal mineral leases totaling 67 million acres, plus untold private holdings. Enough already.

Once upon a time, the oil industry liked to wrap itself up in the mantle of national energy security. Following the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, the argument developed that the United States should not depend on foreign crude, particularly from a volatile and war-torn region like the Middle East. Today, fossil fuel producers are lobbying hard to export American crude and build pipelines and terminals to ship our coal and natural gas overseas. The equation has reversed, and now drilling and strip-mining America's publicly owned minerals will fuel the economies of other nations, all while lining the pockets of an elite class of energy tycoons and destabilizing our climate.

The oil lobby trumpets the issue of job creation as a benefit of oil and gas drilling, but this, too, is a red herring. Jobs in the oil and gas patch are the most dangerous of any industry in the world. Many workers are housed temporarily in "man camps" at the edge of nowhere, in movable trailer parks, and mail their paychecks to distant families. Crime rings and drug syndicates follow the boom, preying on the workers. While the corporations get rich, they treat their workers as if they are disposable, and when commodity prices bust (as they always do after a few years), most of the workers get laid off. It's a hard way to live.

Without the excuse of national security and job creation to hide behind, the real objective of the oil industry — providing get-rich-quick opportunities for a handful of speculators — becomes the main societal "benefit" that the fossil-fuel industry can bring to the table. Against the dubious benefits of trickle-down economics should be weighed the costs of the declining health of our public lands, losses of Western wildlife, air and water contamination, climate disruption, and economic havoc wreaked on communities by booms and busts. The cost-benefit analysis shows that fossil fuels are a losing proposition for America.

No wonder more and more Americans are concluding that when it comes to publicly owned fossil fuel deposits, it's in our best interest to keep them in the ground.

Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.