Following SOTU, Climate Groups Demand Obama Halt 'Grotesque Exploitation' of Public Lands

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Following SOTU, Climate Groups Demand Obama Halt 'Grotesque Exploitation' of Public Lands

Obama's statement that he would reform how fossil fuel leases on public lands are managed welcomed; groups say 'keep it in the ground'

"For far too long, the Interior Department has given away our publicly owned fossil fuels to mining and drilling companies without regard for the damage they cause to communities and our climate."—Annie Leonard, Greenpeace USA (Photo: Suchat Pederson/Rainforest Action Network/flickr/cc)

President Barack Obama said during his final State of the Union that he would reform how oil and gas development is managed on public lands. Great, say environmental groups, who add that in order to really "protect the planet and his own climate legacy," he must keep those fossil fuels in the ground.

From Obama's comments on Tuesday:

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo. But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve — that’s the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve.

Reacting to the president's announcement to push for changes to oil and coal resource management, Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice Vice President of Litigation for Climate and Energy, said, "This is essential," while Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard called it "encouraging."

"For far too long," Leonard's statement continued, "the Interior Department has given away our publicly owned fossil fuels to mining and drilling companies without regard for the damage they cause to communities and our climate."

As Ben Adler explained at Grist on Monday:

The federal government leases a lot of land to private companies for extraction of oil, gas, and, coal. The prices it charges are often below the market rates — especially for coal — and don’t account for the social costs of conventional pollution or of climate change. On the left, groups like 350.org and politicians like Bernie Sanders have proposed simply banning fossil fuel extraction on federal lands altogether, under the banner of “keep in in the ground.”

The Obama administration has shown no appetite for that, but Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in March of 2015 that they would start to examine the climate impact of leasing programs.

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said ahead of the address that Obama should seize his "final opportunity to curb one of the gravest dangers to the world’s climate: fossil fuel companies' grotesque exploitation of America’s beautiful public lands. Every new fossil fuel lease pushes our planet closer to a dangerous climate tipping point because it locks us into more decades of dangerous carbon pollution."

Leases on public land and offshore areas "now generate nearly a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions," Suckling said. "Fracking, mining and drilling are destroying America’s natural heritage to create planet-warming pollution."

It's a key moment, Jamie Henn, director of communications and strategy for 350.org, writes,  to see if Obama will "continue to act in the way he did on Keystone XL, standing up to Big Oil and turning down projects that endanger the climate and our communities or [...] continue to promote fossil fuel development, leaving a legacy full of contradictions and half-measures. Here's why:

In the coming months, the President will issue a new five year plan that will dictate how much offshore oil and gas reserves will be put up for auction to the fossil fuel industry. A bad deal could open up new parts of the Atlantic and Arctic to offshore drilling, a good one would put large chunks of the nation's oil and gas off limits to future development. Smaller federal auctions will continue to be a flash points across the country, as climate activists join with indigenous leaders, farmers, ranchers, students and youth to try and stop the government from selling off our public lands to an industry intent on exploiting them to wreck our common future. With a new bill in Congress and large coalitions coming together, the fight to keep fossil fuels underneath public lands in the ground is very much on.

Taking this important climate action to truly embark on an energy transition "is change the President can lead," Earthjustice's Dillen says.

And here's an important reminder: "These lands are owned by the American people," Suckling stated, adding that "the administration has a responsibility to manage them for the public trust. In the president’s last year in office, he must find the courage to take this powerful action to protect the planet and his own climate legacy."

The Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org were among hundreds of organizations who signed a letter for Obama in September 2015 urging him, for economic reasons as well as for the climate, to stop new leases for fossil fuel extraction on areas that are "cherished resources for us all [and that] embody deep and diverse cultural values and provide clean air and water, recreation and solitude, and refuge for endangered wildlife."

The letter states that the Obama "administration alone has leased nearly 15 million acres of public land and 21 million acres of ocean for fossil fuel industrialization. In total more than 67 million acres—an area 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park—is already leased to the fossil fuel industry."

Stopping such leases "would safeguard our air and water from dirty energy pollution; ensure the health of communities that have lived in energy sacrifice zones for generations; and keep our last, best wildlife habitat from being lost to fossil fuel industrialization," they wrote.

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