The American West is a Canary in a Coal Mine.

Mar 19, 2015

By Center for Western Priorities

Fossil fuel production on federal public lands and waters accounts for more than one-fifth of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report released today by the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society. This annual public lands carbon footprint—amassed from a combination of offshore drilling, onshore drilling, natural gas extraction, and coal mining—measures in at a whopping 1,340 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or, in simpler terms, the same amount as an extra 280 million cars on the road.

As the report points out, these emissions constitute a glaring “blind spot” in the Obama administration’s climate change agenda:

“Through policies to improve energy efficiency, increase vehicle emissions standards, encourage renewable energy production, and reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, the administration has made remarkable progress toward meeting the president’s new goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, as part of an agreement with China. However, even with these remarkable actions, there is still a blind spot in U.S. efforts to address climate change.

Coal production on the West’s national public lands is by far the biggest culprit for these emissions. More than half of all greenhouse gas emissions traced back to federal public lands come from coal, with 93 percent of that production occurring in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado alone.

Given the outsized presence of carbon-emitting energy production our public lands, Western states will continue to be a contentious (yet key) focal point in the larger goal of mitigating climate change—which is already taking its toll on Western communities.

At least 93 percent of California is experiencing severe water shortages, while drought emergencies were declared in several counties in Oregon and Washington State in the past week (in some parts of Oregon, snowpack is currently at 6 percent of normal).

Water supplies are faring slightly better in other parts of the West, but just this week a federal expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that snowpack was quickly declining in Colorado’s mountains—whose tributaries feed the Colorado, Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande Rivers. And this summer’s fire season—which continue to grow longer and more intense—is just getting underway

It seems, then, that the consequences of unrestrained carbon emissions on American public lands are already coming to pass. To address this deluge greenhouse gases, the CAP/TWS report lays out some specific policy suggestions:

  • Setting royalty rates for fossil fuels to account for the full costs of carbon pollution and externalities in order to ensure taxpayers receive a fair return.
  • Curtailing fugitive emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands as part of the BLM’s venting and flaring rule, by requiring companies to pay for the right to vent and flare.
  • Requiring onshore operators to install vent and flare meters to adequately account for volumes of vented and flared gas to ONRR.
  • Requiring oil and gas operators to install best-available technology to reduce the practice of venting and flaring.
  • Requiring industry to measure fugitive methane emissions from upstream, midstream, and downstream production activities.
  • Implementing President Obama’s plan to reduce methane by at least 45 percent by 2025 in part by requiring the aforementioned measures on the part of operators to reduce methane emissions from venting, flaring, and fugitive emissions.

Just today, President Obama signed an executive order for federal agencies to cut their carbon emissions by 40 percent in the next decade. Given the new figures released today, why not hold the same standard for energy produced on our federal public land?