Ending federal fossil fuel leasing could keep 450 billion tons of carbon pollution in the ground

Ending federal fossil fuel leasing could keep 450 billion tons of carbon pollution in the ground

Ending federal fossil fuel leasing could keep 450 billion tons of carbon pollution in the ground

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Climate change poses an unprecedented threat to our future and future generations. In the U.S., federal leasing of publicly owned fossil fuels contributes significantly to domestic and global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly a quarter of U.S. energy-related emissions and nearly 4 percent of global emissions over the past decade. Despite this pollution and the looming climate threat, the Obama administration continues to lease publicly owned fossil fuels, endangering the health and welfare of communities and the planet.

Since President Obama took office, federal agencies have leased tens of millions of acres to private companies to extract and sell fossil fuels under his all-of-the-above energy policy. Up until now, there has been no accounting for the pollution potential of this practice. In a first-of-its-kind report, The Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Federal Fossil Fuels, written by Ecoshift Consulting on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, the potential greenhouse gas emissions that would result from developing publicly owned coal, oil shale, natural gas, crude oil and tar sands on federally-controlled lands and offshore ocean areas are estimated. The report shows that the potential emissions from developing these fossil fuels far exceed the U.S.’s fair share of the remaining global carbon limit, and that the potential emissions from any unleased federal fossil fuels are precluded after factoring in the emissions of developing non-federal and already leased federal fossil fuels.

Key findings of the report are that about 34 percent of the remaining fossil fuels in the U.S. are federally controlled and, if developed, would release up to 492 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent pollution. Of that amount, up to 450 billion tons has not yet been leased to private industry for extraction. The amount of potential emissions from unleased federal fossil fuels constitutes more than a quarter of the total global emissions that can be released if the world is to limit global warming below 2°C by 2100 — a level at which catastrophic impacts will already be felt.

So, by ending new leasing for fossil fuels that belong to the American people on lands and offshore areas controlled by the federal government, President Obama could keep those 450 billion tons of greenhouse gases from polluting the atmosphere. Put another way, keeping the potential greenhouse gas emissions of unleased federal fossil fuels in the ground is like keeping 94 billion passenger vehicles off the road, or keeping 118,000 coal-fired power plants from being built. Those 450 billion tons of greenhouse gases are also equivalent to 13 times global carbon emissions in 2014.


Time is running out in the global fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Each new lease puts us farther down the path toward climate catastrophe, and is a direct contradiction to President Obama’s commitment to make the U.S. a leader in combating climate change. President Obama has leasing authority over federal fossil fuels, which means that with one executive order, he could take 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution off the table immediately. Such action would demonstrate true climate leadership at the time we need it most.

The U.S. has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and when he announced his Clean Power Plan, President Obama said the U.S. will lead the global effort to combat climate change. So far, President Obama’s climate promises have been more rhetoric than substance, and at times downright hypocritical.

No climate President can promote the carbon saving potential of the Clean Power Plan while making more than 80 billion tons of coal available for leasing and mining in Montana and Wyoming. No climate President should claim to care about climate change in the Arctic and simultaneously allow one of the most dangerous and irresponsible oil companies to drill for oil and gas in our Arctic Ocean. Yet President Obama has done both. The federal government cannot meaningfully reign in climate chaos and continue to lease public fossil fuels. This report establishes a new bottom line and rallying cry for the climate movement: No new federal fossil fuel leasing! President Obama has 18 months left to make that come true and be the climate President the American people, and the world, expect and deserve.

Photo credit: Powder River Basin, Ecoflight.org

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