The issue of what to do with the hundreds of millions of acres of federally controlled lands usually does not get much attention in presidential elections — despite the vastness of the U.S. government’s holdings.
But the 2020 contest for the Democratic nomination seems to be different.
Already, a number of liberal lawmakers, mostly from the Northeast and West Coast, have begun calling for an end to leasing parcels of Western land to coal miners and oil and natural gas drillers.
The rationale is that the single largest holder of energy assets in the nation — that is, the federal government — should turn off the spigot of oil and other fossil fuels if it wants to stop runaway global warming.
Between 2005 and 2014, the extracting and burning of fossil fuels from federal lands made up nearly a quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report.
But other presidential candidates, hailing from oil-and-gas-producing states, have stopped short of calling for such a moratorium, bringing into relief a potential fault line among Democrats as the presidential primary heats up.
“It’s an issue staring everyone in the face,” said Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
So far, the latest, and loudest, call for a moratorium comes from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. As part of the detailed policy proposals the Massachusetts Democrat has rolled out in recent weeks, Warren vowed “to sign an executive order that says no more drilling” on her first day in office.
“Any serious effort to address climate change must include public lands,” Warren wrote in a Medium post explaining her overall approach to public lands management, which also included setting a goal of getting 10 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources offshore or on public lands.
“Sen. Warren is out in front,” said John Noel of Greenpeace, one of several environmental organizations leading the keep-it-in-the-ground movement that have undergirded opposition to pipeline projects such as Keystone XL and Dakota Access.
“It’s important for candidates to understand where the bar is for climate leadership in 2020,” he added.
Yet she is not alone. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) co-sponsored a bill in 2017 that would have stopped new leases and ended existing non-producing leases on both on- and offshore fossil-fuel extraction.
Since then, the idea of a fossil-fuel moratorium has gained momentum among Democrats. Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made climate change the centerpiece of his White House bid, endorsed the Keep It in the Ground Act.
And just this week, the campaigns of Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, told The Washington Post that their candidates also want to freeze fossil-fuel leasing on public lands.
Same is true of Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose campaign spokeswoman, Julia Krieger, said Thursday the congressman "opposes any drilling or mining for fossil fuels on public lands."
In the past, the Ohioan has praised the “immense climate-related benefits and economic benefits” of increased natural gas production as it replaces coal-fired power.
But other candidates, while still voicing support for rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are withholding support for an outright moratorium.
John Hickenlooper, for example, admonished the Trump administration for “expanding drilling on public lands” in a recent Post op-ed. But the former governor of Colorado, the fifth-largest gas-producing state, has been mum on the moratorium question. His campaign did not reply to a request for comment.
One issue that keep-it-in-the-ground supporters must contend with is the unintended consequence of banning new leasing. In additional to potential local job losses, a fossil-fuel moratorium on public lands could eventually deprive state governments of revenue streams from royalties used to fund schools, parks and other projects liberals usually like.
“I imagine we will see a range of other approaches to accelerating the transition to clean energy on public lands,” said the Center for American Progress’s Kelly, whose group has not formally taken a position on a moratorium but who still calls it “a strong policy framework.”
Still, the vows to shield public lands from more leasing matter because unlike other liberal priorities such as expanding Medicare or lowering the cost of higher education, the president has the authority to put in place such a moratorium with a stroke of a pen, legal experts say.
In fact, President Barack Obama took a significant step on that front in his last year in office when he ordered a moratorium on new leases for coal mined from federal lands.
“The next president could issue an even broader moratorium, covering oil and gas as well as coal,” said Michael Gerrard, an environmental law professor at Columbia Law School.
Obama’s ban has proven to have staying power despite President Trump’s efforts to repeal it as part of his platform of reviving the nation’s recent struggling coal sector.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana ruled that the Trump administration acted illegally when lifting the Obama-era ban because it did not adequately take into account potential environmental impacts.
Update: This story has been updated with a new comment on Rep. Tim Ryan's position on a fossil-fuel moratorium on public lands.
Correction: The original version of this article mispelled the name of the public lands director of the Center for American Progress. It is Kate Kelly, not Kate Kiely.
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— How a lawyer, a lobbyist and a legislator waged war on an Alabama Superfund cleanup: In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency wanted to expand cleanup of toxic soil left by a coking plant and other industrial activity near an African American neighborhood in Birmingham. But a trio of powerful political and business figures in the state had other plans.
The Post's Steven Mufson unwinds how David Roberson, vice president and top lobbyist at the coal company Drummond, and Joel Gilbert, a powerhouse lawyer with Balch & Bingham, turned to Oliver L. Robinson Jr. (D), an African American state legislator and former University of Alabama at Birmingham basketball star, to sway public opinion in a black community against a Superfund designation that they worried could cost the company $100 million or more.
What they did: The employees at the law firm and coal company funneled money into a charity Robinson ran that promoted financial literacy among low-income families and students. In turn, the state legislator helped drummed up opposition to the EPA's cleanup plan by, among other activities, collecting signed petitions to send to the agency and secretly recording conversations he had with EPA officials.
The consequence to the conspirators: Robinson plead guilty after being charged with receiving bribes, wire fraud and tax evasion. And by turning state's witness, Gilbert and Roberson were convicted of conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and money laundering.
The consequence to the community: The cleanup is ongoing, though not as aggressively as regulators once hoped. As Mufson writes, “one cruel irony of the Birmingham tale is that Gilbert and Roberson succeeded in the narrow sense. The EPA has not expanded the Superfund site.”
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