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Here's How Obama Could Get Serious About Climate Change — Without Passing Any Laws

Environmental groups say 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution could be avoided if the government stopped leasing federal lands to fossil fuel companies.
September 11, 2015, 6:47pm
Imagen por Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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The US government sits atop a trove of coal, oil, and natural gas that could produce more carbon emissions than the entire world put out in the past decade.

Barack Obama — or any willing successor in the White House — could keep that carbon locked underground with a single word: No.

At least that's the argument being made in a new report by environmental groups, who say that swearing off future drilling and mining on federal lands would be a big step toward corralling the threat of climate change.

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"There is this huge tool that's available and on the table now to actually talk about sequestering carbon in the ground, where it's unburnable, and not simply bending the curve of emisssions," said Michael Saul, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the report's authors.

Analysts from the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the environmental consulting firm EcoShift estimate there are enough fossil fuels under federally owned lands and the Outer Continental Shelf to release the equivalent of 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if they were all consumed. By comparison, the entire world's greenhouse gas output in 2014 was 35 billion tons, according to the International Energy Agency.

Much of that would have to remain off-limits anyway for the world is to keep warming down to an international goal of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). In January, British researchers estimated more than 80 percent of the world's coal reserves, half its natural gas, and about a third of its oil need to be classified as "unburnable" in order to hit that mark.

And without passing any new laws, the president could stop issuing new leases on federal land tomorrow, Saul said.

"The law is pretty clear that Congress has conferred very substantial discretion on the executive branch as to when, where, and how those are leased," he said. And offshore, the president can cut off leasing "at any time, for any reason."

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Related: Obama Is Heading to Alaska to Highlight Climate Change Despite Arctic Drilling Approval

But a top official of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers in the Rocky Mountain states and the Dakotas, called the analysis "shoddy" and "not serious."

"It's not a serious discussion. It's not a serious point of view," said Kathleen Sgamma, the group's vice president for government and public affairs. Fossil fuels provide about 80 percent of US energy needs, and calls to "Keep it in the ground" offer little in the way of replacements, she said.

"Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity will talk about wind and solar," Sgamma said. "Wind and solar are great, except they have only to do with electricity generation, which doesn't cover transportation or heat. It's just electricity, and it's just a very small portion of electricity now."

In addition, she said, the biggest reason the United States has cut its greenhouse gas output has been the boom in cheap natural gas, which is displacing coal as a fuel source for power plants and produces about half the carbon emissions. And, she said, the kind of action the report envisions would run afoul of federal law, which authorizes exploration on federal lands.

"If the federal government wants to withdraw lands from leasing, there is a process to go through that requires congressional approval. It's not one of these things that the president can unilaterally say, 'We're just not going to lease anymore.' "

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But Saul said opponents who wanted to overturn a presidential decision would have to muster the 40 votes to break a Senate filibuster, or the two-thirds of both houses needed to overturn a veto.

There also are money and jobs at stake in any effort to wean the United States off fossil fuels. Sgamma said her members employ nearly 270,000 people. And the Treasury Department said existing leases bring nearly $10 billion a year into the through rents and royalties.

In March, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the federal government needs to modernize those levies to make sure taxpayers get "a fair return" on public lands. Saul said those leases don't take into account the costs that are effectively dumped on the public — like climate-changing carbon emissions — and the amounts involved are "only the tip of the iceberg" compared to what's still untapped.

As for whether the current president would take the steps he envisions, Saul said, "One can always hope."

"I think about it this way: He's got relatively young children," Saul said. "He's going to think about what kind of world we'll be leaving to them as adults. I've got to wonder if he thinks about a few decades down the road, his children will be asking him why didn't he act if he had the chance."

Watch On the Line: Robert S. Eshelman discusses climate change: 

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl