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Public Lands Are Critical to Any Green New Deal

America's public lands can help solve the climate crisis instead of contributing to it

While federal lands hold significant oil, gas, and coal reserves, they also have some of the nation’s best solar and wind resources. (Photo: Louis Moncouyoux/Unsplash)
public lands

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in northwestern New Mexico, was once the center of the world to the Ancestral Puebloan people, who lived in communities across the 2,000-square-mile San Juan Basin from 850 to 1250 A.D. Today it’s the center of a 21st-century clash over energy policy. Over several decades, tens of thousands of natural gas wells have sprung up among the pottery shards and 900-year-old ruins in the area, and the basin is now capped by a plume of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—that can be seen from space. 

While the park is managed by the National Park Service, much of the rest of the basin is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which leases gas-rich areas to energy companies. Three times over the past two years, the BLM has offered and then withdrawn leases close to the park. Next month, Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, will hold a field hearing to push for a permanent ten-mile no-leasing buffer around the park. But even as he and a small but vocal group of clean-energy advocates in Congress rush to safeguard Chaco and other coveted public lands from energy development, they have their eyes on a bigger prize. They hope that one day soon fossil-fuel development on federal lands will be relegated to an antiquated curiosity. In their ambitious vision, laid out in a February congressional resolution coauthored by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA) and cosponsored by Grijalva and about two dozen other members of Congress, places like the San Juan Basin, whose solar resources are just as abundant as their fossil-fuel reserves, will help solve the climate crisis instead of contributing to it. 

The Green New Deal resolution—the grandest gesture Congress has made toward climate action in decades, even if it is largely symbolic—is astonishing in its boldness. It calls for no less than weaning the country off fossil fuels within ten years, while ensuring a “just transition” for coal, oil, and gas workers into clean-energy jobs. Critics on both sides of the aisle have derided the resolution, which maintains that everyone should have “clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and access to nature,” as naive, overly ambitious, and vague. But some energy-policy experts see another, little-discussed shortcoming: while about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions come from federal lands, the resolution barely mentions them; the closest it comes is in a trio of short declarations, one that calls for “ensuring that public lands, waters and oceans are protected,” another that calls for “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency,” and a third that advocates “restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage” to pull more carbon out of the air.

If the goals of the Green New Deal are to be met, public lands will need to play a central role while the resolution’s concepts are turned into detailed, actionable blueprints, energy-policy experts say. 

“The Green New Deal should be about replacing fossil-fuel energy with clean energy, and the public lands are an essential tool for doing both,” says David Hayes, who served as deputy secretary of the Interior Department during the Obama administration and is now a law professor at New York University. “One-third of the land mass in the U.S., and all of the offshore [land], is in federal hands. So the federal government is uniquely situated to lead.”

Chase Huntley of the Wilderness Society’s (TWS) Energy and Climate Program adds, “We’ve done the math. Emissions on federal lands and waters need to be reduced by 90 percent by midcentury if we’re going to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade.” (While the 2015 Paris climate treaty called for limiting additional warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, some climate scientists have called for a more ambitious limit of one degree Celsius.) A November 2018 report from the USGS, commissioned by the Obama administration in 2016, found that while emissions from federal lands declined between 2005 and 2014, they still amount to 23.7 percent of national emissions for carbon dioxide and 7.3 percent for methane.

There’s no question that the need for an energy-policy overhaul is urgent. In October, four months before the Green New Deal resolution was introduced, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report warning that to avert the worst consequences of climate change, the world’s nations—particularly major greenhouse-gas emitters like the United States—must rapidly shrink fossil-fuel emissions and scrub more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Aggressive action on both solutions is essential, the IPCC emphasized.

Federal lands hold tremendous untapped potential for unleashing a renewables boom and sucking down the carbon dioxide that’s warming the globe, Huntley and other energy-policy experts say. While federal lands hold significant oil, gas, and coal reserves, they also have some of the nation’s best solar and wind resources. Yet TWS estimates that less than 5 percent of U.S. power from renewables is generated on federal land. The BLM alone manages more than 20 million acres with wind-energy potential in the 11 western states. Largely because of renewable-energy pushes from previous administrations, the BLM has approved about 11,000 megawatts worth of solar, wind, and geothermal projects.

But with some significant exceptions, such as the Ivanpah megasolar facility on BLM lands in California, which went online in 2014 and now powers 140,000 homes around the West, the renewable potential of the vast open landscapes of the federal estate is underdeveloped. And if oil and gas development is phased out under a Green New Deal bill—or any other legislation that tamps down greenhouse-gas emissions—renewables development on federal lands will be crucial to replace that energy.

Renewable-energy development is not without its own environmental consequences, though. The massive Ivanpah solar-thermal project, for example—at the time the largest solar facility in the world—disturbed habitat for the desert tortoise, blue-gray gnatcatcher, and other wildlife and forever changed the scenery in the Mojave Desert. Bird and bat deaths from encounters with wind turbines are well-documented. But conservation groups say that much has been learned from Ivanpah and other renewable-development projects about how to plan, develop, and monitor them in a way that reduces their impacts. Measures adopted through legislation could ensure that new projects avoid the mistakes of the past, they say. 

While renewables have received much of the attention in the Green New Deal debate so far, carbon sequestration—pulling the greenhouse gas down out of the air and into the ground—is just as important, says Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, a century-old conservation group that participated in the conservation provisions of the original New Deal in the 1930s and is working closely with Green New Deal architects to work out the role that forests can play in achieving its vision. He notes that the October IPCC report emphasized the importance of halting deforestation and replacing as much of what’s been lost as possible; it calls for planting 3.86 million square miles of forest by midcentury.

Forest protection, restoration, and replanting take on even greater importance as climate change worsens. More frequent drought and pest infestations and larger, hotter wildfires are causing forests to give up their carbon, enough that in some places they’re becoming a source of emissions instead of a carbon sink.

“So far, the growth in forests is outpacing emissions, but in some parts of the country, where there’s drought, pests, and other things, emissions are actually outpacing sequestration,” Daley says.

The November USGS study also examined how much carbon federal lands sequester. As of 2014, carbon storage was about 83,600 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent—an increase of 1.6 percent over ten years, the USGS found. In all, federally owned forests, grasslands, and shrublands sequestered an average of 195 MMT of carbon dioxide equivalent each year between 2005 and 2014, offsetting about 15 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel extraction on federal lands.

Daley says climate-minded forest management is one potential solution that has broad appeal, in part because thinning of overcrowded forests to reduce the risk of unnaturally large and intense wildfires helps revive the sagging forestry industry. 

“We are meeting with members on both sides of the aisle in the House and the Senate, and what we’re hearing is a focus on forests really makes sense,” he says. “There’s something for everyone, so it’s something that has natural political appeal. It’s like trying to sell ice cream—its really not that hard.”

If a Green New Deal bill is to become a reality, certain federal laws may have to change. A successful long-term conservation program that Congress just permanently authorized, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, relies on offshore oil and gas royalties for $900 million in funds to help protect national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges and to provide matching grants for state and local parks. No offshore oil and gas development, no Land and Water Conservation Fund—unless an alternative funding source is secured. 

Then there are federal laws from the 1970s that require BLM and national forestlands to be managed for a range of uses, including recreation, wildlife conservation, energy, and mining. But neither Hayes nor Lynn Scarlett, who served as deputy secretary of the Interior during the George W. Bush administration, see that multiple-use mandate as a hindrance to ramping up clean-energy development and reducing fossil-fuel extraction. 

“The Federal Land Policy and Management Act [of 1976] doesn’t say you have to have those activities in particular places,” Scarlett says. More problematic to the goals of the Green New Deal, she adds, would be statutes governing offshore oil and gas development, such as the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which says the Secretary of the Interior “shall prepare and periodically revise” a leasing program for oil and gas development. “Those don’t preclude [renewable] development in the offshore areas, but… if you were to go 100 percent renewables, that would need to be rethought.” And since both offshore and onshore leases last many years, existing oil and gas development both would continue for years to come.

A relatively painless climate solution that hasn’t been discussed much is hiding in plain sight, Scarlett adds—in the hundreds of federal buildings and other facilities on public lands. Existing structures can be retrofitted to reduce their carbon footprint, and new ones should meet the highest energy-efficiency standards. “Now, a lot of those are dinky little sheds,” she says, “but a lot are water-managing facilities, power-generating facilities at parks, and a big fleet of vehicles.” Those green buildings could also serve as demonstration sites to educate the public, says Scarlett, who created a climate task force to assess those opportunities while at Interior. “The department itself presents a tremendous opportunity for piloting a green new future.”

The Green New Deal’s vision may seem far-fetched in a nation whose dependence on fossil fuels is enthusiastically encouraged by the current administration, which has prioritized reviving coal and expanding oil and gas. But Grijalva sees the disconnect between Trump’s energy policy and climate science as an opportunity of sorts. Current policy not only goes against the science, he notes, but it’s also increasingly at odds with public opinion. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in December found that 72 percent of Americans see climate change as either an imminent, a serious, or a moderate threat.

With public opinion catching up with the science, it’s an opportune time for federal policy to do so too, Grijalva says. “Even if you don’t believe the science, at the very minimum you can see the signs all around us.”

For example, in Grijalva’s region, the Southwest, it’s getting hotter and drier; water supplies are shrinking, too, he notes. On the coasts, warming oceans, along with melting polar caps, are swelling sea levels, and low-lying areas like Miami and Norfolk, Virginia, are already dealing with increases in flooding, forcing local officials to raise streets and install pumps. Hurricanes are becoming more intense, more frequent, and more damaging, and the wildfire season in the West is beginning earlier and ending later. 

“We have to be ambitious and bold in how we deal with this issue,” Grijalva says. “I get a lot of pushback for that—people say this or that bill will never make it through the Senate or past the president—but we have to be responsible for the momentum going in that direction.”

Grijalva and other Green New Deal supporters hope the 2020 election will realign the political stars enough to push through meaningful climate legislation.  

Some measures may not need to wait. A recently passed sweeping public-lands package that, among other things, establishes 1.3 million acres of wilderness, expands two national parks, and transfers a tract of federal property to local government in Arizona for a new solar facility, offers an example of how elements of the Green New Deal resolution could be packaged with congressional wish lists to beat the odds.

Focusing on federal lands owned and well-loved by the public might be the way to win new supporters for Green New Deal legislation, Huntley adds. “It’s not just important because of the role those lands play in powering the nation, in providing economic opportunity, and providing the natural systems that support people,” he says, “but because our public lands are something that everyone in America can relate to.”

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