Eleven western U.S. groups have provided the Bureau of Land Management (the Bureau) comments imploring the agency to address the climate crisis in its proposal to update the country’s antiquated federal oil and gas rules. The proposed rule suggests decades-overdue fiscal reforms and provides some discretionary guidance for best land stewardship practices, but falls short of managing a climate-compatible decline of oil and gas extraction on public lands.
Both the proposed rule and the report serving as its basis omit climate action entirely despite President Biden’s Executive Order 14008 specifically requiring analysis and mitigation of the federal oil and gas program’s contributions to the climate crisis. The agency claims the report and the proposed rule satisfy Executive Order 14008 despite this omission.
“The Bureau of Land Management faces a critical opportunity for meaningful review of the federal oil and gas program to place climate, conservation, and environmental justice values on equal footing with the oil and gas industry,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Federal fossil fuels constitute a whopping 20% of U.S. climate emissions. Yet, while calling for climate solutions, the Biden administration has worsened the climate problem by breaking federal oil and gas production records set during the frenzied fossil fuel free-for-all under President Trump.”
The science is clear: there is no room for continuing “business as usual” on the federal mineral estate if humanity is to have a meaningful chance of curtailing catastrophic warming. Global fossil fuel production must decrease by approximately 6% per year between 2020 and 2030 if we hope to limit warming to 1.5°C. As the world’s largest fossil fuel producer and historic emitter, the U.S. is obligated to take a leadership role. The U.S. is currently projected to fall far short of its international climate commitments.
“The climate crisis is a water crisis,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and legal director for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Our communities, Native American nations, and endangered wildlife need this administration to take meaningful action now to protect them from unchecked climate change being driven by fossil fuel extraction. It’s long past time to align climate messaging with regulatory actions, including a realistic plan to permanently end the on-going leasing of public lands to help ensure that clean, safe water will be available for present and future generations.”
In their comments, the advocates and legal experts call for phasing out oil and gas production by about 2030, and suggest a “lifecycle approach” for the federal oil and gas program, which would help address the interwoven climate, ecological, and biodiversity crises. This lifecycle approach would allow the agency, for the first time ever, to actually acknowledge and respond to the climate impacts of federal oil and gas extraction at a local and regional scale, from pre-leasing through well shut-in, and, critically, to retain agency discretion to require producers and lessees to address these issues in real time as new information arises.
“Buried beneath Biden’s climate rhetoric is the dirty little secret that oil production is at an all-time high,” said Taylor McKinnon, Southwest director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This wildly inadequate proposal will allow for decades of continued fossil fuel extraction on our public lands, dooming the planet to more deadly, costly climate catastrophes. We’re calling on the Biden administration to meet the moment and aggressively commit to ending federal fossil fuel production by 2030.”
The administration’s proposed rule proposes to geographically concentrate oil and gas leasing in areas with “high potential” for oil and gas recovery in an effort to limit landscape and wildlife harms. But this approach has “high potential” to actually increase greenhouse gas emissions from federal public land and focus environmental harms in already overburdened communities. The rule also fails to provide the agency with guidance on which interests to put first when ecology and human health values conflict with extractive industries’.
“Conservation in areas of low and moderate development potential for oil and gas should not come at the expense of creating sacrifice zones in areas that are high development potential, yet nonetheless inappropriate places for oil and gas development. A perfect example of this is The North Fork Valley in Colorado, where a community of farmers, ranchers, vintners, orchardists, recreationalists, and businesses have opposed new oil and gas leasing for over a decade. The Bureau of Land Management’s proposed rule would put a target on communities like ours,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This proposed rule is missing common-sense guardrails, specifically denial criteria that include local warming and climate impacts, and that require the Bureau of Land Management to close lands to leasing when recreational, ecological, environmental, and water resources values exceed oil and gas extraction.”
“Without question, we need to advance bonding and royalties reform, and create financial accountability for the oil and gas industry profiting off the destruction of public lands,” said Mike Scott, Sierra Club National Oil and Gas Campaign manager. “But those achievements would be hollow without additional action to take on climate change. We must hold corporate polluters accountable for their role in the climate crisis, and any final rule needs to make sure that is the case. We again call on the Biden administration to pursue strong climate rules that will protect lands and waters, preserve habitats, and safeguard our communities from the most damaging effects of climate change.”
The Bureau’s authority to manage public lands (the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976) stems from the property clause of the U.S. Constitution—the apex of the federal government’s authority. While the Supreme Court aims to curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to act on climate, the Bureau’s considerable authority over mineral production on federal lands represents a critical opportunity toward securing a livable climate for future generations. These comments urge the Bureau to seize that opportunity.
“Biden promised to be a climate leader, and yet this rulemaking from Interior does not address the quarter of U.S. climate emissions that come from fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. We need real action to avert climate catastrophe, not more half measures,” said Nicole Ghio, senior Fossil Fuels Program manager at Friends of the Earth.