Weakening climate policies will degrade public land and waters, not lower gas prices

This Feb. 26, 2021, file photo shows an oil well east of Casper, Wyo. The Biden administration is raising royalty rates that companies must pay for oil and natural gas extracted from federal lands as it moves forward under court order with sales of public fossil fuel reserves in nine states. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver, File)

A common piece of counsel when responding to an emergency is to “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Right now, the oil and gas industry is certainly trying to parlay the war in Ukraine, inflation and high gas prices into support for more oil and gas development. Instead of using this crisis to justify more fossil fuel development, we should seize the moment and reform our leasing system to move the country toward renewables and energy independence as well as protecting our climate and public lands and waters. 

The reality is that we’re never going to drill our way to lower gas prices and energy independence, and, meanwhile, there’s another crisis — climate change — that demands our immediate attention. The good news is that we can protect our public lands and waters while freeing our country from its dependence on fossil fuels. But this starts with reforming the federal oil and gas leasing system. 

High gas prices exact a toll on hard-working Americans, and lawmakers are right to seek solutions. But weakening America’s climate policies will not reduce the price at the pump. Intensifying climate disasters are costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year and ramping up development on public lands will only make this worse. The effects of climate change are not limited to the fires, floods and disasters that are costing communities. They are also an existential threat to the outdoor recreation economy that depends on intact landscapes. Outdoor recreation access and the benefits it provides are helping communities escape the boom-bust cycle of fossil fuel development and attract workers and businesses across industries to more vibrant and sustainable communities. Now is the time to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and protect the climate by investing in renewable energy and ensuring that future development is aligned with the country’s long-term goals to protect the climate and increase conservation and access to public lands.

Last fall, the Department of the Interior shared its “Report on the Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Program,” and while we support many of the reforms within it, we believe the agency must go further by ensuring that oil and gas development activities align with the Biden administration’s climate commitments. These goals include conserving 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030, a carbon-pollution free electricity sector by 2035, an economy-wide reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions of 50 to 52 percent by 2030, and the promise to end new offshore oil and gas leasing.

Following the administration’s recent decision to resume oil and gas leasing, many of the recommended reforms outlined in the November report were included in the environmental review of ongoing lease sales, including increasing royalty rates, removing lands with low or no potential for oil and gas development from leasing, as well as ensuring tribal consultation and broad community input. We applaud these steps. We also support the administration’s decision to better calculate the social cost of carbon, an important analysis to determine how oil and gas development contributes to climate change. In other positive news, a Bureau of Land Management lease sale in Utah recently moved forward with an exemplary “Recreational Resources Preservation Alternative,” which recognizes how important outdoor recreation is on many of the landscapes that are being offered for lease sales. We believe this option should be institutionalized in all future lease sales. 

Interior’s recent reforms are a positive first step, but the climate crisis is urgent and requires a commensurate response. The administration must align the Interior Department’s oil and gas leasing program with the climate commitments it made during Biden’s first weeks in office. In keeping with the administration’s commitment to a “whole of government” response to the climate crisis, the Interior Department should be setting the curve for vigorous action to protect our climate by pursuing a broad rulemaking that will give durability to long-overdue and much-needed reforms to the federal oil and gas leasing system. These reforms should move purposefully toward making public lands and waters carbon neutral as soon as possible, ensure accountability to those goals, and provide a just transition for fossil fuel dependent communities. 

Hopefully, the Interior Department moves quickly to institute these sensible, modest reforms that recognize the administration’s climate goals and our country’s need to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. Taking action is imperative, for protecting outdoor recreation opportunities and public health, as well as advancing environmental justice, addressing the climate crisis and freeing Americans from our dependency on the volatile fossil fuel industry.

Louis Geltman is a lawyer based in White Salmon, Washington and director of Outdoor Alliance’s policy program. The alliance unites the outdoor recreation community to protect public lands and waters.

Jason Keith is a founding managing director for Public Land Solutions, non-profit organization dedicated to providing comprehensive recreation planning and stakeholder coordination to support effective and sustainable public land solutions.

Tags Climate change Drilling Energy Fossil fuels Public land

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