The Significance of Public Lands


In his final State of the Union address, President Obama built on his record of climate leadership by pledging to speed up the shift away from the dirty fossil fuels of the past; end public subsidies for coal, gas, and oil; and advance cleaner, smarter ways to power our future without threatening our kids.

Three days later, he made good on an important leg of that pledge, when his interior secretary, Sally Jewell, proposed a freeze in the deeply troubled program that uses taxpayer dollars to promote coal mining on public lands by leasing them to private companies — at a grievous cost to our climate. Under her proposal, existing leases would be unaffected, but no new leases would be available for coal mining on public lands until a process is put in place that scores the climate impact of any future mine and ensures taxpayers get fair value for the fuel it produces.

With coal consumption plummeting to a 30-year low, the long-beleaguered industry, as expected, howled. The president, though, has got this right. It's time to overhaul this outdated program and end the public handouts to coal companies.

For decades, taxpayers have subsidized coal operations on federal lands set aside for all of us to share. Coal companies pay far less for that coal than for the same fuel extracted from private lands. The difference has cost taxpayers some $30 billion over the past three decades.

To paraphrase a country and western classic: They get the coal mine— we get the shaft.

And for what? To distort the market in a way that encourages the use of a fuel that is warming our planet and imperiling our future. That's the wrong direction for the country.

"Rather than subsidize the past," Obama said last week, "we should invest in the future."

That's exactly what world leaders agreed to last month in Paris, where the United States, China, and nearly 200 other countries pledged to cut their use of fossil fuels to fight the growing dangers of climate change. There are better ways to power our future—by investing in efficiency, for example, so we do more with less waste, or by getting more clean energy from the wind and sun.

Those goals haven't been enshrined in our federal land-use policy. Secretary Jewell's proposal, though, takes a big step in that direction. As part of a required environmental assessment, leases for fossil fuel development on public lands would have to take into consideration the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the fuel extracted there would generate.

That's just common sense. It brings our public lands policy in line with our goal to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that's driving climate change. What's crazy is to try to cut carbon pollution with one hand while using taxpayer subsidies to promote it with the other.

Over the long haul, we need to phase out the production of all fossil fuels on our federal lands and in federal waters, as part of a larger strategy to fight global climate change. That means using our public lands for renewable wind and solar power, where appropriate, not digging up more coal, gas, and oil. And it means taking precious Arctic and Atlantic waters off the table — permanently —to oil and gas drilling and all the damage and risk they bring to our oceans, marine life, coastal communities, and climate.

Public lands are a public trust, set aside in the public interest. We have a moral obligation to protect future generations from the growing dangers of rising seas, extreme heat and drought, widening deserts, raging wildfires, storms and floods, and all the other dangers of climate change.

Our public lands have an important role to play in this vital mission. Putting the brakes on fossil fuel production on those lands is an essential first step.