Yesterday, a coalition of 30 environmental and community groups petitioned the Department of Interior to use the agency’s longstanding authority and responsibility under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to center public lands as a cornerstone of ecological and community resilience in the face of a changing climate. By adopting the climate and conservation-centered regulations proposed in the petition, Interior would empower federal public lands to serve as one of our country’s key climate solutions.
Right now, public lands are, unfortunately, a major climate problem. Fossil fuel extraction from federal public lands is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and associated climate and community impacts. Interior’s highly permissive approach to oil and gas development of federal public lands and minerals has undercut the Biden administration’s ability to deliver on its climate commitments. Oil and gas companies own leases conveying the right to drill 26.6 million acres of federal public lands and minerals. Although nearly 53 percent of those leased acres are non-producing, 96,000 wells have already been drilled and Biden’s Interior has approved, without imposing any climate mitigation measures, an industry stockpile of more than 9,000 additional drilling permits. Adding insult to injury, the administration just announced its intent to sell an additional 144,000 acres of oil and gas leases.
The coalition requests that Interior set public lands as the foundation of the nation’s efforts to respond to the global climate crisis by immediately initiating a rulemaking to leverage FLPMA’s mandate that Interior prevent the “permanent impairment” and “unnecessary or undue degradation” of public lands from oil and gas development. For decades, the agencies have mothballed these critical provisions in favor of promoting a massive expansion of climate-damaging oil and gas production on public lands.
The coalition’s recommended regulatory framework would require that Interior and BLM adhere to science-based climate guardrails, already agreed to by the Biden administration, to constrain warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to actively pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In so doing, the petition would provide a vehicle for the administration to further its commitments to reduce emissions, curb the impacts of fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands, and to reach the 30×30 and 50×50 conservation milestones. Climate action specifically focused on the federal public lands and minerals oil and gas program is absolutely necessary to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.
As we close in on the 50th anniversary of this landmark law, it is time for Interior to fulfill FLPMA’s promise by adopting a framework that meets the urgency demanded by the climate crisis and opens new doors for public lands to contribute to a thriving, resilient future.
“The intersecting geopolitical, energy, and climate crises we face demand strong action. Using the power of the environmental laws that require federal land managers to protect public lands for the long term, this administration can open new doors to a thriving, resilient future for all people, with our public lands as a cornerstone of ecological and community resilience,” said Barbara Chillcott, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “We know public lands hold the key to resilience in the face of a warming climate—so why aren’t we using the full power of the law to protect them and ourselves?”
“There is no more impactful climate action the administration can take than stopping the ongoing exploitation of public lands by the fossil fuel industry over any other competing use,” said Adam Carlesco, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch. “The proposed regulatory changes within this petition are aimed at ensuring that Interior upholds its statutory obligations to preserve these lands for future generations.”
“Public lands contribute 4.5 times more carbon to the atmosphere than they sequester, largely due to energy extraction activities, like oil and gas drilling,” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “We can mitigate the devastating effects of climate change by putting in place this proposed framework for public land management. If we care about our kids and grandkids, why wouldn’t we want to do this?”
“The bedrock laws governing our public lands are intended to conserve these cherished places and their vital resources, not auction them off for private profit,” said Ben Tettlebaum, senior staff attorney with The Wilderness Society. “This framework would help fulfill the promise that public lands benefit all of us – current and future generations. It’s long past time for Interior to honor our voices – the people and communities who depend on these lands for clean air, clean water, subsistence, recreation, and a climate-resilient future.”
“The impacts of public land exploitation are especially devastating for New Mexico’s low-income communities and communities of color. The Administration must take concrete action to mitigate these impacts and address our worsening climate conditions. They can start right now by implementing the recommendations in this proposed framework and protecting public lands,” said Oriana Sandoval, chief executive officer of the Center for Civic Policy
“Protecting public lands is an American idea – some call it ‘America’s best idea’,’’ said Demis Foster, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico. “Congress created the tools necessary to undo decades of degradation and ensure that our federal public lands can be used to address the climate crisis, provide equitable access to the outdoors and support a growing outdoor recreation economy, and provide the basis for a future our children can be proud of.”
“We must ensure responsible stewardship of our land and resources,” said Hannah Burling, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico. “Growth must follow the findings of a comprehensive analysis of the climate, environmental, and social impacts of such development.”
“By adopting the rules proposed in this petition, Interior will open new doors to usher in an era of sustainable public land use that can mitigate past and present harmful practices, rein in climate change, and create opportunities for disproportionately impacted frontline communities to thrive,” said Mara Yarbrough, campaign director of the New Mexico Permian Basin Climate Justice Coalition. “We urge Interior to act within its authority and take definitive climate action by adopting this proposed framework.”
“Our public lands are not just resources to be exploited. They are critical to ensuring that life support ecosystems remain intact,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “It is time for the Department of Interior’s regulations to match the statutory intent of preventing irreparable harm to our environment and ensure the regulatory standards and thresholds necessary to tackle the climate crisis.”
“This will further empower President Biden to avoid more climate harm to forests, rivers, wildlife and people from greenhouse gas pollution,” said Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Climate science makes clear that any new fossil fuel leasing and production is incompatible with avoiding the catastrophes of warming. The Biden administration needs to heed that reality and take urgent, meaningful action now.”
“It’s time to wind down and ultimately phase out fossil fuel production from public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director of WildEarth Guardians. “For our climate, we need to end fracking, stop mining coal, and start safeguarding the lands that are vital to this nation.”
“This framework will empower Interior to take climate action in line with the public interest and merited for the scale of the crises we face,” said Mattea Mrkusic, policy lead at Evergreen Action. “Climate commitments have to be observed in reality, not just in rhetoric.”