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How Much Do Federal Lands Contribute to Climate Change?

A new report assesses the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to coal, oil, and gas on public lands.
The mining and burning of coal contributes nearly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions on public lands.

The mining and burning of coal contributes nearly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions on public lands.

A new study released by the Trump administration estimates the amount of climate-warming emissions federal lands are responsible for—primarily, how much carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide results from the burning of coal, oil, and gas mined from federal lands and waters.

The study was commissioned in support of an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands—a moratorium that the Trump administration reversed several months ago.

This is the first time the federal government has tallied this information, says Brad Reed, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey, who led the study. "I think this report is necessary for us to have an understanding of how our federal lands are being used and serves as a baseline to see how that compares to how they're used in the future," Reed says.

He and his colleagues found that land owned by the federal government was responsible for the equivalent of 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in 2014, the latest year they studied. Public lands contributed 23 percent of the entire nation's carbon dioxide emissions in 2014. That number is roughly proportional to how much of America's land the government owns, 28 percent. An outside expert, geologist Gregg Marland of Appalachian State University, thought the government's study was well done: "It looks quite sound to me."

Then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell requested this study soon after the Obama administration announced a temporary halt on new leases for companies to mine coal on federal land, Reed says. That was in January of 2016. Reed says he doesn't know for sure why Jewell wanted the study, but she might have wanted to monitor the effects of the moratorium. Would it make a dent in the Earth-warming emissions that are seemingly under the most direct government control? Obama-era officials had worried that having the U.S. government profit from coal sales conflicted with the administration's stance that limiting coal is crucial to moderating climate change, as the Washington Post reported in 2016.

Reed and his team's work found that, indeed, coal is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases released as a result of fossil fuels mined from public land. The mining and burning of coal contribute nearly 60 percent of public-land emissions.

Then, the Trump administration, which has vigorously denied the existence and importance of climate change, came in. In March of 2017, the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, lifted the coal moratorium with an order that states, "the public interest is not served by halting the federal coal program for an extended time." And the government apparently lost interest in knowing how public lands contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. "There is currently not a plan to carry this analysis forward for the subsequent years," Reed says, "but we're sort of waiting for this report to get digested and look for further direction after that."

So what happens to data the government is no longer interested in? Well, it can always be updated. The report's results are publicly available and include numbers from 2005 through 2014. Should the government be interested in updates in the future, Reed says his team could pull fresh base data—which is still being collected by other agencies—and crunch it.