A new study examines the benefits of keeping fossil fuels 'in the ground'

Living on Earth
Huge mining truck

The US government leases federal land to fossil fuel companies

Wikimedia Commons

Environmental activists are urging the US government to “keep it in the ground” — that is, to ban any new leases of public lands to fossil fuel companies. The industry already leases more than 67 million federally-controlled acres. A new study details the benefits that could be achieved from this policy.

The Stockholm Environment Institute, based in Sweden, finds that the US could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million metric tons of CO2 per year in 2030 if it banned extraction from federal lands. These reductions would increase over time, measured against what the new leases would have otherwise produced.

One hundred million metric tons is about one to two percent of annual US emissions. Today, the US produces between six and seven billion metric tons of CO2 every year.

Michael Lazarus, US director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, calls this “quite a significant contribution” when compared with other strategies for reducing emissions, like the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce emissions from the electricity sector, or increased fuel economy standards for vehicles. Reductions from those policies range from 50 to 600 million metric tons per year.

Lazarus says the study looked at the question of US federal land leases as part of a broader question: "What does it mean that the world continues to invest so heavily in fossil fuel production?" 

“For many years now, we've been focused on how much fossil fuel we consume,” he explains. “We’ve thought a lot about how to reduce our consumption and develop alternative sources of energy like renewable energy that are low carbon, [but] at the same time, we kind of left the back door open over the past few years.”

While everyone has been focused on consumption, US production of fossil fuels has soared, Lazarus says. In fact, for years, it was thought that the Earth would soon run out of fossil fuels, leaving us no choice but to switch to alternative energy. But the last 10 years have shown otherwise.

“We've seen here in the US a boom in shale oil and shale gas production that was unanticipated 10 or 15 years ago,” Lazarus says. “The problem is that, while that may be good for things like reducing oil imports, it also undermines our efforts to develop these other technologies. It undermines our ability to get people off of their addiction to fossil fuels.”

The US is now the number one producer of fossil fuels globally: number one in oil; number one in natural gas; and number two in coal. If the US government chose to begin reducing its own contributions to fossil fuel production, it would signal the rest of the world that it is serious about addressing both the consumption and production of fossil fuels, Lazarus says.

But reducing production of fossil fuels globally is politically challenging.

“You always want other countries to go first,” Lazarus says. “It's another manifestation of the collective action problem that we [already] have with climate change. We always wait for the other person to go first.”

Instead, Lazarus says, the US needs to show leadership. Eventually, we will have to develop a suite of policies that puts the country on a path to maintaining the pledges of the Paris Agreement, which is basically a phase-out of fossil fuel use in the second half of this century, Lazarus says. “If we are serious about that, then we need to begin phasing down fossil fuel production across the US — and federal lands and waters are an ideal place to start.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.