Interior’s energy path forward: Drill less, go clean

“Science is science,” President Obama told an interviewer last year. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.” 

In fact, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the world needs to leave three quarters of proven oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year. 

{mosads}It’s a sobering figure to remember as Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell prepares to unveil Tuesday at CSIS her blueprint for energy development on federal lands and waters, the source of a quarter of U.S. oil and gas production and half the nation’s coal.

The president has said that addressing climate change is a moral imperative. If we are to meet this challenge, and meet our obligation to leave a cleaner world for future generations, we need a paradigm shift regarding energy development on public lands. Right now, for every one renewable energy project permit that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approves, it grants 469 applications to drill oil and gas on federal lands. That must change, and change radically. 

Below are four initial steps the Interior Department should take to match its energy policy with the president’s vision of a cleaner energy future:

1.      Stop new Offshore Drilling: The administration must abandon its misguided plans to allow oil drilling in the offshore waters of the Arctic and along the Atlantic coast.  Turning these areas over to Big Oil threatens to lock in decades of carbon emissions and represents precisely the type of new oil development the science says we cannot afford. These waters represent a perfect place to stop drilling and instead establish a plan that embraces responsibly-sited clean renewable energy. Drilling in the Arctic is particularly irresponsible considering there are simply no proven technologies to deal with an oil well blowout in the region’s remote seas. Likewise, opening the Atlantic off our east coast –for the first time in more than 30 years—would threaten vital coastal economies.

2.      “All in” on Renewables: Renewable energy is one of the cornerstones of the president’s Climate Action Plan, and the Interior Department has made remarkable strides in developing wind, solar, and geothermal resources on our federal lands.  Under Obama, the agency has approved 52 utility-scale renewable energy projects, including the permitting of 29 solar projects that could produce enough electricity to power almost five million homes.  Yet Interior continues to aggressively promote fossil fuel development— last year BLM leased enough land to drill the entire state of North Carolina.  The Department must embrace a ‘renewables first’ policy, which means better tools for renewable development and offering renewables the same level of long-term certainty routinely granted to fossil fuel projects. Without a major change in the Department’s culture, clean energy progress will be constantly undermined by entrenched oil and gas interests.

3.      Coal Leasing Moratorium: No new leases on taxpayer-owned coal should be issued until the currently broken leasing system is fixed. Several studies have found that taxpayers aren’t getting fair value because there’s not enough industry competition for leases and the Interior Department does a poor job in trying to figure out what the right price should be.  But worse, Interior’s chronic undervaluation makes coal artificially cheap and undermines the nation’s goal of shifting toward cleaner, non-polluting alternatives.

4.    Protect Against Fracking’s Risks: Fracking threatens the health of our communities, clean air, treasured landscapes, wildlife, and sources of drinking water for millions of Americans. Yet, Interior continues to approve new oil and gas fracking on public lands nationwide without sufficient environmental review, relying on outdated, inadequate regulations. And while the agency is in the process of updating some rules, drafts have been woefully inadequate to protect public health or the environment.  Just as the Department should prioritize clean energy development over fossil fuel extraction, it must put people’s health and our natural heritage ahead of industry interests.

If we are to bequeath to our children a livable planet and sustainable economy, we must stop letting Big Oil, Gas, and Coal dictate energy policy and control our politics. We must act now, before it’s too late. This has to be done across the board, agency by agency, policy by policy, following the best available science.  The Interior Department should be at the forefront of this effort by launching a cleaner, safer, long-term plan to move beyond fossil fuel development.   

Matzner is the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Beyond Oil Initiative.

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