'Keep It in the Ground Campaign' Calls on Obama to Halt Public Land Leasing for Fossil Fuel Extraction

Posted Nov. 4, 2015

MP3 Interview with Randi Spivak, director of the Public Lands Program at the Center for Biological Diversity, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


As world leaders prepare to attend the United Nations climate summit meeting in Paris later this month, it's clear that even if every government honors the pledges they've made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that won't be enough to keep emissions from rising more than two degrees Celsius. That increase, climate scientists maintain, will cause irreversible climate change likely to make Earth uninhabitable.

One enormous source of current and future greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. comes from fossil fuel extraction under federal public lands and waters -- including coal, oil, shale oil, gas and tar sands. One of the largest and most diverse coalitions ever to address climate change in the U.S. is asking President Barack Obama to stop granting, or "letting," new leases on public lands. Since 2008, the Obama administration has leased more than 35 million acres of federal public lands and waters to the fossil fuel industry, almost half of the total 67 million acres already leased to fossil fuel companies. More than 179 million acres, or 90 percent of the public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management in 11 western states, are currently available for oil and gas leases.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Randi Spivak, director of the Public Lands Program at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the lead organizations of the Keep It In the Ground campaign that is calling on President Obama to take action. Here she discusses the broad coalition of groups involved in the campaign and the impact that the initiative’s success could have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

RANDI SPIVAK: What makes this movement so broad and so powerful is the intersection of climate change and public lands activism. Several groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, 350.org, etc. – delivered a letter to President Obama back in September that was signed by 400 organizations, including the United Auto Workers Union, Physicians for Social Responsibility, as well as many individual high-profile climate scientists. So I think you can see we are attracting a broad spectrum of people impacted by climate change through the health angle, labor angle, as well as scientists who know how quickly and urgently this issue is to take action.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How big a difference would this make? I think I read that the fossil fuels on public lands comprise half the total of unleased such lands, is that right?

RANDI SPIVAK: Yep, that’s pretty close. Because public lands are lands and waters basically are allowed by law to be leased by private corporations for extraction of fossil fuels. The Center for Biological Diversity … I was curious to know, well, what is the potential greenhouse gas emission effect if public lands and waters were allowed to be fully leased? So we contracted with a group called EcoShift, who are very good climate modelers, and they actually calculated the amount of unleased fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in the public estate, if you will, and that was 450 billion tons, which is a large number, but to put it into perspective. It is basically half of all the remaining unleased fossil fuel in the USA, on land and waters. So that could keep half the fossil fuels safely in the ground and out of the atmosphere. That’s why the publicly-owned fossil fuels, which are controlled by the federal agencies, is an enormously important piece of this pie. And the good news is, the president – any president, this current president and future presidents – has the legal authority to stop letting new leases – sales of new lands and waters, for fossil fuels.

BETWEEN THE LINES: But even if Obama were to enact a ban, a future president could just undo it.

RANDI SPIVAK: Technically, yes, that is right, but what I think is important here is taking action and starting to get the information out there that the public part of this is a huge carbon bomb, literally. We don’t expect the president to do this with one broad stroke, but what we do expect to see is the amount of land being leased to be rapidly slowed down, and that’s the action we anticipate. You know, as Paris is coming upon us, and post-Paris, the pressure will be on and the president – any president – has authority to do it. I think it’s going to be up to the people in this country to raise their voices loudly and keep the pressure on so that whether it’s President Obama or the next president, they know that the public – who owns this carbon – wants to see it stay in the ground.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Randi Spivak, because of the Mining Act of 1872 and other laws, companies can dig up these fossil fuels and other natural resources like uranium for a few cents a ton. Do you think raising the price a lot would make companies less interested in exploiting these resources?

RANDI SPIVAK: Raising the prices, if it’s a really meaningful rise in prices, I would think should have an effect then, and certainly we do want to see prices raised and that could affect demand. But the oil and gas companies fight this tooth and nail, any price increase – including money that could be used to help agencies actually monitor what’s happening on the ground. So we do need to see the prices increase. There are a couple of efforts now in the administration looking to raise prices on coal, reform of the coal program. My worry, though, is that the price increases will be the most minimal and honestly, with these companies making as much money as they do, it won’t really be a hardship to them. That’s why it’s important to start off by keeping this in the ground and not letting these leases from the get-go. If any fossil fuel is leased, it will be mined, it will be burned, it will be combusted. And so the nature of our effort is, we have to keep this in the ground. Scientists say – there have been several studies now which say that in order for the world to avert warming greater than two degrees – which will have irreversible consequences – we must keep about 80 percent of our fossil fuels in the ground. And that’s the premise from which this starts; it’s not just regulating from the smokestack; it’s actually keeping this in the ground, and that will ultimately affect price, and then demand, and help the rapid shift to renewable energy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What response, if any, have you gotten from anyone in the Obama administration?

RANDI SPIVAK: Well, when Secretary Jewell, the Secretary of the Interior, found out about our campaign – it was actually the day we released the letter signed by 400 organizations to the president – her response, when asked by a reporter, was, “We can’t possibly do this; we’re a nation that depends on fossil fuels.” And to me that answer is just a non-starter. We’re a nation that must immediately transition out of fossil fuels. And the technology is out there ready to do so and transition to renewable energy. So I think the secretary was caught off guard how strong and how big this movement is. It’s a paradigm shift.

For more information, visit the Center for Biological Diversity's website at biologicaldiversity.org.

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