Opinion

Under Trump, our public lands are spewing carbon dioxide

Parks and forests could help us tackle the climate crisis — but right now they’re making it worse

Our public lands are currently hurting efforts to reduce emissions and achieve a zero-carbon economy. That’s absolutely backwards and unnecessary, Grijalva and Lowenthal write. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images)

OPINION — The Trump administration tried to sneak two alarming climate change reports past the public last year just after Thanksgiving, apparently hoping everyone would be shopping or sleeping off a turkey hangover. The attempt backfired spectacularly.

One of the reports, the National Climate Assessment, gave a new sense of urgency to climate policy in a way unmatched by other recent scientific analyses. Its projections of huge impacts on people’s health, their homes, and the overall U.S. economy from runaway climate change have spurred fresh calls for action and sharpened House Democrats’ focus on climate policy in the next Congress.

The other report, unfortunately, received far less attention. This had nothing to do with the importance of its findings; it was bad timing, plain and simple. But the U.S. Geological Survey’s conclusion — that public lands and waters are responsible for nearly a quarter of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions — needs to be widely shared and understood.

This administration promotes coal mining and oil and gas drilling at all costs, especially on public lands. As incoming leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is responsible for overseeing energy activities on federal lands and in federal waters, we will work with our colleagues to pursue a better path. 

The current government shutdown has meant the almost complete closure of our public lands agencies — except in the Arctic, where Trump’s Bureau of Land Management is still holding public meetings on drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve. We have asked acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to clarify the selective prioritizing of fossil fuels while other missions, including conservation, continue to languish.

Our parks, forests, oceans, and wild, open spaces shouldn’t be used to make our climate crisis worse. These lands must be managed to lead the way to a zero-carbon future.

Our public lands contain some of the sunniest, windiest, and most geologically active places in the country, if not the world. They are often ideal locations for solar, wind, and geothermal energy development. By placing a greater focus on developing low-carbon projects in these locations and capitalizing on the vast renewable energy resources we know exist, we can transform our public lands into an asset that will help us solve the climate crisis.

The opportunities are tremendous. The Obama administration already identified 285,000 acres of public land ideally suited for solar development, enough to generate more than 27,000 megawatts of electricity and power for roughly 8 million homes — roughly four times the amount of solar currently sited on public lands. Millions of similarly promising acres can be used for additional renewable energy. Similar areas ideally suited for wind or geothermal must be identified.

Meanwhile, we’re barely getting started on offshore wind, with an estimated realistic potential of 86,000 megawatts, enough to power 23 million homes. This potential is currently tapped by a grand total of zero turbines in federal waters. Technologies that generate energy from waves, tides, and currents offer even more untapped possibilities.

Development of these technologies and energy sources creates jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that between 2016 and 2026, solar energy installers and wind turbine technicians will be the two fastest growing occupations in the country. In the coming decades, development of renewable energy on public lands can create hundreds of thousands of good paying jobs in manufacturing, construction, installation and finance, among others. Expanding this sector of our economy will go a long way toward our zero-carbon goals, support a sustainable twenty-first century economy, and increase our competitiveness with global business rivals.

Public lands can be further used to tackle the climate crisis by capturing and storing carbon. Such smart land-use management can greatly increase the amount of carbon absorbed by our public lands. One recent study found that by 2050, we could store an additional 8.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the annual emissions of over 2,000 coal-fired power plants, under the best management scenarios.

In addition to storing carbon, wetlands and barrier islands can mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels and help protect against stronger storms. Nearly 40 percent of Americans already live in coastal counties. As this number increases, natural buffers can provide environmentally friendly ways to protect communities and economies from coastal hazards.

None of this will matter if we follow President Trump’s unsafe and unsustainable prescription for drilling, mining, and denying the existence of our climate problems. The president and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have effectively forbidden federal land managers from taking steps to prepare for changing environmental conditions. Significant legislative reforms are needed to turn back pro-fossil-fuel policies that subsidize companies wishing to drill or mine on our public lands.

As the USGS report pointed out, our public lands are currently hurting our efforts to reduce emissions and achieve a zero-carbon economy. That’s absolutely backwards and unnecessary. Federal lands and oceans can be a model to guide the private sector and the world on smart land use. It’s our responsibility to manage these properties as engines that propel our clean energy future.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat, served as ranking member of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee in the 115th Congress.

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