Why President Obama’s New Rules for Public Land Use are a Big Deal

On January 15 in his final State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a three-year moratorium on new coal sales on federally-owned land. This is an important victory in no small part made possible by years of pressure from CREDO activists and customers—including 18,000 Citizen Letters sent directly to Sally Jewel, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, by CREDO customers in 2013 and 2015.

In putting a temporary stop to new coal sales on federal lands—but continuing new oil and gas sales, which in many cases President Obama is working to expand—this announcement is simultaneously a huge step forward, and not enough, given the current urgency of our fight against the greenhouse gas pollution that is heating our atmosphere.

To understand why, it’s worth taking a few steps back to consider the bigger picture of fossil fuels on public lands, and the math of preserving a livable planet.

The Federal Government manages a huge amount of land that you, I, and everyone else in America owns—28% of U.S. land, in addition to all of our coastal ocean waters. There is a tremendous amount of fossil fuel underneath those lands and waters, also owned by all of us. For nearly a century, it has been the policy of our government to sell to fossil fuel companies—at extremely low prices and with no regard for the climate impact—the rights to drill, mine and frack for those fossil fuels.

The result is that burning oil, gas and coal extracted from federal lands accounts for almost 25% of all U.S. global warming pollution.

Coal is a huge piece of that, with more than half of climate pollution from federal lands from burning coal, about 14% of total U.S. climate emissions.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s action doesn’t stop coal mining currently underway—only new coal sales. The Department of Interior says existing sales will allow companies to keep mining federal lands for another 20 years.

What’s more, coal accounts for less than half of all of the potential climate pollution on federal lands.

Graphic displaying U.S. Federal Lands emissions
From an August 2015 report, Potential Greenhouse gas emissions of U.S. Federal Fossil Fuels, prepared by Ecoshift Consulting for Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth.

In all, public lands and waters contain a massive carbon bomb of 492 total gigatons of carbon pollution—almost as much as the world’s entire remaining carbon budget of 565 gigatons, the amount scientists say we can release into the atmosphere by mid-century and have a fighting chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of global warming.

Last year at the Paris Climate Talks, President Obama and other world leaders came to a historic consensus to try to keep global warming below 2 degrees—and to limit it to 1.5 degrees if possible.

To achieve it, the vast majority of all oil, gas and coal on federal lands would need to stay underground. In light of this, it would make sense for President Obama to put a stop to new sales of not just coal, but oil and gas too. But he isn’t—not by a long shot.

President Obama continues allowing fracking on federal lands, and his administration has proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open to drilling new areas of the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling. The activities directly undermine the President’s international climate commitments, and fly in the face of the clear math of avoiding catastrophic global warming.

The management of fossil fuels on federal lands is under the President’s sole control. And stopping new sales of all fossil fuels—oil, gas and coal—on federal lands would be the largest action taken by the President to keep fossil fuels in the ground. That’s exactly what he should do.

Our voices have helped push the President to take important steps like putting a stop to Arctic drilling, and the moratorium on new coal sales. But the urgency and math of climate change demand that he do far more to keep fossil fuels in the ground. That’s why it’s so important that CREDO activists and customers continue our pressure. Sign the petition to tell President Obama to stop all sales of fossil fuels on federal lands.