We must demand our government decrease emissions from federal public lands

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The British oil giant BP recently announced the most ambitious climate change goal of any major oil business, saying it would eliminate or offset by 2050 the planet-warming emissions from its operations, as well as the emissions caused by the burning of the oil and gas it pumps out of the ground.

The company’s pledge to reach “net zero” carbon emissions is a landmark in the global fight against climate change. It stands in stark contrast with Trump administration policies that would dramatically increase emissions from federal public lands, the precious open spaces owned by all of us and managed by the government.

Federal lands leased to the oil and gas industry over the last three years could produce as much as 5.9 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, according to the Wilderness Society. That total, from U.S. public lands alone, is more than half the emissions that China—the world’s largest emitter—releases per year.

At the current pace of leasing, emissions from the production and combustion of fossil fuels sourced from public lands and waters are projected to fall well short of the reduction target suggested by leading climate scientists.

Our public lands already contribute greatly to the climate change problem: More than 20 percent of total U.S. climate emissions come from oil, gas, and coal extracted on those lands. If American public lands were their own country, the fossil fuels extracted on those lands would collectively make it the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the entire world. And the Trump administration’s aggressive leasing decisions are making the problem much worse: potential climate emissions from onshore sales in Alaska, for example, could multiply tenfold between 2017 and 2020.

The federal government should be ensuring our shared parks, forests, and other public lands are reducing, rather than escalating, greenhouse gas emissions. Our national forests and other public lands help cool the planet by absorbing and storing huge amounts of carbon, and have the potential to continue to do so. But once again, the administration is pointlessly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by trying to open to logging Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the nation’s largest and most effective “carbon sinks,” as well as other intact, “roadless” areas.

Our elected leaders could take several reasonable steps to ensure our public lands are managed more judiciously with regards to greenhouse gas emissions. BP’s new CEO has done for the company what Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) are doing for DOI through their new climate bill –  The American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act. This legislation would require DOI to not just disclose emissions, but also reduce the emissions from fossil fuels produced.

Additionally, under the Transparency in Energy Production Act, companies seeking or holding a lease to drill on public lands or waters would be required to track and report the amount of energy production and the resulting emissions from those leases. The bill, introduced in mid-January by Rep. Alan Lowethal (D-Calif.) would provide the public and decision makers with vital information in advance of future lease sales.

It’s likely that BP and other companies wouldn’t be acting to fight climate change if investor and activists weren’t demonstrating they care. As stakeholders in the U.S. public lands, we should ask no less of those who are entrusted with their management. We must demand that our elected representatives take all available steps to ensure these irreplaceable lands are managed in a way that allows them to work for us, rather than against us, in the battle against climate change.

Isaac Brown serves as the Executive Director of The Business Coalition for Conservation and Climate, a group of leading venture capitalists, investors and business executives. Before, he served as a senior energy advisor to several members of Congress.

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