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Alaska's Chukchi Sea, where the Obama administration has said Shell can drill for oil, is among the millions of acres of public land and ocean already leased to the fossil fuel industry. (Photo: Backbone Campaign/flickr/cc)

400+ Groups to Obama: You Have the Power to 'Keep it In the Ground'

'You can't be a climate leader while continuing to open up large amounts of federal land to extraction and encouraging continued fossil fuel development.'

Deirdre Fulton

Hundreds of prominent organizations and leaders from Alaska to Florida are formally calling on President Barack Obama to stop new federal fossil fuel leasing on public lands and oceans in the United States, arguing that doing so would accomplish more in the global fight against climate change than any other single action taken by the president's administration.

In a letter to be delivered Tuesday to the White House, the 400-plus signatories note that "[u]p to 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution could be immediately removed from the global pool of potential climate pollution" if Obama were to deem unleased oil, gas, and coal "unburnable." What's more, the letter continues, as "the world’s largest historic cumulative polluter and a global economic leader," the U.S. has an obligation to take such a bold action. 

The American public owns nearly 650 million acres of federal public land and more than 1.7 billion acres of Outer Continental Shelf—as well as the fossil fuels beneath them.

"We are simply asking President Obama to stop selling off our national forests, oceans and sacred heritage sites for pennies on the dollar and slow the effects of climate change by stopping fossil fuel leasing on public lands."
—Lindsey Allen, Rainforest Action Network

More than 67 million acres of public land and ocean are already leased to the fossil fuel industry, according to the letter, representing an area 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park and containing up to 43 billion tons of potential carbon pollution.

While 15 million land acres and 21 million acres of ocean have been leased during the Obama administration alone, the groups behind the letter state that under existing federal laws, including the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the president has "clear authority to stop new leases...[w]ith the stroke of a pen."

"You can't be a climate leader while continuing to open up large amounts of federal land to extraction and encouraging continued fossil fuel development," said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter in a statement released Monday. "If President Obama is to keep his commitment to curbing climate change, he must do everything he can to keep fossil fuels in the ground and stop drilling and fracking on public lands."

Added Rainforest Action Network executive director Lindsey Allen: "The federal government is enabling some of the wealthiest companies in the world, with names like Exxon and Peabody, to mine and drill America’s public lands for private profit. This egregious drilling, fracking and mining is devastating the health of communities and endangering the stability of our climate. We are simply asking President Obama to stop selling off our national forests, oceans and sacred heritage sites for pennies on the dollar and slow the effects of climate change by stopping fossil fuel leasing on public lands."

An analysis released last month by Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity—both signatories to this week's letter—showed that allowing unleased publicly owned fossil fuels to be developed would "cripple the U.S.' ability to meet its obligations to avert the worst effects of the global climate crisis," as the green groups put it at the time. 

On the other hand, "stopping new leasing would help secure the legacy of our public lands," Tuesday's missive reads. "It 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."

In a statement, Cherri Foytlin of the Bridge the Gulf community media project described what has already been lost to fossil fuel leasing, particularly to companies like BP, which was responsible for the devastating 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I would ask that you put yourself in our place," she said. "Over five years have passed since BP's broken promises spewed as easily from their tongues as the oil did from their broken pipe. To this day our peoples and ecosystems suffer from BP’s brutal, callous, and lasting assault. Five years, and our dolphins still die, our turtles still die, our oysters still die, our marshes still die, our people still die."

"BP is a corporate serial killer," she continued. "BP is a terrorist organization. Yet they not only remain free to continue their patterns of destruction, they are subsidized by our government to do it. How many more graves will there be, before justice is truly served in the Gulf Coast? That is the only question we have now."

Along with a laundry list of climate, labor, and public health groups, the letter is signed by luminaries including co-founder Bill McKibben, social justice advocate and professor Noam Chomsky, and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

However, the Washington Post's Chris Mooney pointed out: "Notably, some other leading green groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, are not signatories, suggesting that not all environmental organizations are ready to push the president this far, especially in light of his recent intense focus on climate change, epitomized by the newly finalized Clean Power Plan."

But in comparing the 5 billion tons of carbon pollution that Obama's Clean Power Plan would cut by 2030 to the 450 billion tons of carbon pollution that sit beneath lands owned by U.S. taxpayers, "it’s pretty clear that fossil fuel extraction on public lands is a far bigger fish he can fry," said May Boeve, executive director of "That's the kind of bold, aggressive action it’s going to take to solve this problem, and that's what it means to truly be a leader on climate change."

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