The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama administration wants more renewable energy, tighter pollution controls on public lands

The Obama administration will seek tougher standards for companies extracting oil, gas and coal on taxpayer-owned land during its remaining months in office, even as it pushes for expanded solar and wind projects, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday.

Jewell, in a major speech outlining energy priorities for the administration’s final 22 months, said she intended to see that Americans get a better return — financially and environmentally — from energy development on the 500 million acres of surface land and nearly 2 billion acres of off-shore territories managed by the federal government.

She promised “balanced decisions” and “clear rules of the road” for energy companies, but she said protecting the Earth’s climate would drive policy choices, from new rules limiting methane gas leaks to incentives for building wind farms off shore.

“Helping our nation cut carbon pollution should inform our decisions about where we develop, how we develop and what we develop,” Jewell told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.

The speech was Jewell’s most expansive effort to lay out priorities for energy development since the former REI company CEO became interior secretary nearly two years ago. The Interior Department, which administers about a fifth of the country’s surface land as well as the Outer Continental Shelf, manages leases for about a quarter of the country’s oil, gas and coal projects, from massive natural gas fields in the Southwest to oil wells in U.S. waters from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jewell touted booming energy production over the six years of the Obama administration, noting that daily oil production has nearly doubled during the period while U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports has plummeting.

During that six years, the Interior Department has helped facilitate a historic surge in electricity generation from solar and wind farms, she said. The 52 commercial-scale solar and wind projects approved since 2008 are expected to generate 14,000 megawatts of power, roughly equivalent to the amount of hydroelectric power generated by all the nation’s dams, including the Hoover and Grand Coulee, she said. More projects are in the works, including off-shore wind farms along the Atlantic Coast.

“Just as the United States is … the world’s top producer of natural gas, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t also be the top producer of solar power and wind power,” she said.

Jewell said fossil-fuel companies should expect new regulations over the coming months, alluding to plans to unveil long-anticipated rules governing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands. The proposed rules, which update decades-old standards restricting the kinds of equipment and chemicals used in fracking, are expected to be announced as early as this week.

“Some have already labeled these baseline, proven standards as overly burdensome to industry; I think most Americans will call them common sense,” she said.

Jewell’s speech came during a week in which House Republicans have outlined their priorities for energy development in a 2016 budget plan. A summary document encourages further oil and gas exploration onshore and offshore, including on public lands, while it promised to oppose current government policies that encourage renewable energy.

“The budget rescinds all unobligated balances from the president’s stimulus green energy programs,” the Republican document says. “The government cannot recover taxpayer dollars from failed projects like Solyndra, but it can protect taxpayers from being on the hook for future boondoggles.”