Report: Oil and gas on public lands a ‘blind spot’ in climate fight

WASHINGTON — Oil, gas and coal development on America’s public lands could undermine the Obama administration’s ambitious plans for combating climate change, including new curbs on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, according to a report set to be issued Thursday.

The analysis by the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society, shared exclusively with FuelFix ahead of its release, pinpoints rising methane emissions from oil and gas wells on public lands and waters as a significant share of the heat-trapping gases tied to all energy development nationwide.

“The Department of the Interior has long been in the business of approving well after well, mine after mine, without assessing the impacts of its energy policies on U.S. carbon pollution levels,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow and director of the public lands project at the Center for American Progress.

Fossil fuels extracted from federal lands and waters are estimated to have accounted for 24 percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2012 — some 1,340 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — according to the report, which relies heavily on government data analyzed by Stratus Consulting.

The activity represents “a blind spot in U.S. efforts to address climate change,” the authors write. “The U.S. Department of the Interior, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s public lands, has no comprehensive plan to measure, monitor and reduce the total volume of greenhouse gas emissions that result from the leasing and development of federal energy resources.”

There are signs that may be changing. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell declared on Tuesday that climate concerns will factor heavily into the decisions she makes over the next two years as the United States’ top manager of federal real estate — roughly 1.7 billion offshore acres and one-fifth of the country’s landmass.

“At Interior, we are already adjusting our land management strategies for the impacts of climate change, but we also need to do more to address the causes of climate change,” Jewell said in a speech outlining the approach. “Helping our nation cut carbon pollution should inform our decisions about where we develop, how we develop and what we develop.”

Read more: Jewell aims to enlist public lands in climate fight

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management already is drafting new rules that aim to curb venting and flaring gas from wells on public lands, a practice most common at oil wells where natural gas is treated as a less valuable byproduct of more lucrative crude production.
In the absence of those mandates, the Wilderness Society and Center for American Progress report says, methane pollution from venting and flaring on federal onshore leases has risen more than 51 percent between 2008 and 2013.

And the analysis finds industry-reported emissions from offshore leases also jumped dramatically between 2009 and 2011 — likely because new Interior Department monitoring and reporting requirements were phased in at the same time. Even after those monitoring mandates were in place, methane emissions from venting and flaring at offshore oil and gas operations rose an estimated 19 percent between 2012 and 2013.

Methane, the primary ingredient of natural gas, is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas believed to be 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 100-year period.

Oil industry representatives, including the American Petroleum Institute, have argued that new regulations aren’t needed for methane, because the oil and gas industry is already tackling the problem head on. “Another layer of burdensome requirements could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions,” API president Jack Gerard said in January.

But some environmentalists pushing for tougher methane curbs have argued that regulations are needed to encourage incremental industry changes that would not otherwise pay off.

In their report, the Wilderness Society and Center for American Progress argue that the BLM’s coming rule is “a critical piece of the larger climate change puzzle,” which should be combined with work to curb “runaway” methane leaked during processing and distributing oil and gas.

The groups urge the Obama administration to force companies to install meters at wells on public lands to accurately record the amount of gas that is vented and flared — and install the best-available technology to reduce the practice.

They also want to see the Interior Department raise the royalty rates charged for fossil fuels extracted on public lands to account for “the full costs of carbon pollution.”

Jewell pledged Wednesday she would advance a plan to “modernize” the Interior Department’s approach to coal mining on public lands — to include managing the activity “in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives.”

Coal harvested on public lands was responsible for more than half of all estimated emissions tied to fossil fuel development on federal lands and waters in 2012, according to the new CAP analysis. Much of that activity is concentrated in the Powder River Basin of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, which supplies 40 percent of all U.S. coal to more than 200 power plants.