Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Keep It in the Ground

As a carbon-based life form, I’m hugely pro-carbon.

However, way too much carbon—in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2)—is both causing the atmosphere to warm and the hydrosphere (a.k.a. the oceans) to acidify.

Historically, much of the carbon loading into the atmosphere (which subsequently loads the hydrosphere) came from the biosphere (we used to live on a forested planet). Today, most atmospheric carbon loading comes from the lithosphere—the hard outer layer of Earth—in the form of fossil fuels that are extracted and then burned.

A warming climate means literally melting the ice out from underneath the polar bears in the Arctic and the penguins in Antarctica. It means rising sea levels that will inundate homes along our coasts, where most people live. It means more wars in Africa over water and food. It means perpetual droughts in the American Southwest. It means an exacerbation of the Sixth Mass Extinction. I could go on and on about how bad things could get due to humans’ misplacement of carbon, but I don’t have to. The U.S. Global Change Research Program has published the National Climate Assessment, and it’s not pleasant reading.

To those who are skeptical about human-caused climate change, I would note that 97 to 98 percent of scientists who actually study the climate agree with the tenets of anthropogenic climate change as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If you are still not convinced, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society have published a primer entitled Climate Change: Evidence and Causes.

Though I’m neither a climate scientist nor a medical doctor, if ninety-seven or ninety-eight doctors told me that I had a certain diagnosis and two or three said I did not, I would think it would be prudent to conclude that—or at least to proceed as if—the diagnosis was correct.

Fundamentally, we need to dramatically reduce—and then reverse—fossil-fuel carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In short, we need to keep it in the ground.

Keeping it in the ground means discouraging or prohibiting new fossil fuel development and production anywhere. It means no new infrastructure such as pipelines, roads, and refineries. It means divestment of stocks in fossil-fuel companies, taxing fossil fuel use at or above the social cost of carbon (SC-CO2), and more. No single silver bullet will achieve the necessity of keeping all fossil fuels safely in the ground. Rather it will be numerous courses of action—silver buckshot if you will—that will prevent the end of life on Earth as we have known and enjoyed it.

One of the necessary pieces of silver buckshot that is a no-brainer is to end the leasing and production of federal fossil fuels. Federal fossil fuels are not owned by the oil, gas, or coal companies, but rather by We the People. We the People need to just say no and keep it in the ground. Federal public lands—both onshore and offshore—account for about a quarter of all U.S. fossil fuels extraction (in energy terms), including two-fifths of all coal. Map 1 shows where the federal lands and waters in question are.

Map 1. Federal fossil fuels in the United States. Courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Map 1. Federal fossil fuels in the United States. Courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Keep It in the Ground is a broad movement that includes many conservation, indigenous, and frontline organizations. The Center for Biological Diversity was among the first to call for applying Keep It in the Ground to federal fossil fuel leasing. The movement also encompasses other entities including but not limited to Wild Earth Guardians,, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network, Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the United Church of Christ, and The Guardian newspaper. (You may want to check with your favorite national or local conservation or environmental or climate change organization to see if they are down with keeping it in the ground. Alas, several are not yet.)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce considers Keep It in the Ground an existential threat, so it must be a capital idea.

On September 14, 2015, more than four hundred organizations sent a letter to President Obama asking him to halt new federal fossil fuel leasing, and on September 15, 2015, the Keep It In the Ground movement delivered more than one million signatures calling on him to do the same. In November 2015, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced S.2238, the Keep It in the Ground Act of 2015. It now has eight co-sponsors, all Democrats save for Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who—though he ran for president in 2016 as a Democrat—is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. In February 2016, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-2) introduced H.R. 4535, a companion version in the House of Representatives, which has twenty-three co-sponsors, again all Democrats.

In 2015, the U.S. emitted 5,424 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Ending new federal fossil fuel leasing is projected to result in a net reduction of 100 million tonnes of CO2 annually, or ~2 percent of total U.S. annual fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Perhaps 2 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s one of the fifty pieces of silver buckshot needed to ultimately reduce fossil fuel emissions to zero. Table 1 compares the ending of new federal fossil fuel leasing with other emission-reduction strategies awaiting federal government action.

Keeping federal fossil fuels safely in the ground means

• prohibiting new fossil fuel leasing on federal public lands and oceans,

• allowing already-existing but nonproducing federal public land leases to expire, and

• buying back already-existing and producing fossil-fuel leases.

Prohibiting new federal fossil fuel leasing would lower the orange line in Figure 1 representing projected production downward enough to eliminate the emissions depicted in blue. Allowing nonproducing leases to expire would eliminate most (not all, as some would start to produce) of the emissions depicted in gold. Buying back federal producing leases would eliminate the emissions in dark gray. While these steps would significantly lower emissions, they wouldn’t be enough to reduce U.S. fossil fuel emissions safely below the dark-salmon band that would obviate the worst effects of climate change. However, they would be a vital start.

Ending new and existing fossil fuel production on federal public lands would not only reduce global warming and ocean acidification, it would coincidentally reduce threats to species, ecosystems, watersheds, landscapes, economies, and cultures dependent upon federal public lands. It would also send an important diplomatic signal to the rest of the world that the United States is serious about addressing climate change.

Ending new federal fossil fuel leasing is an easy thing for this or the next president to do. It doesn’t take an Act of Congress, as Congress long ago acted to give the president the authority to not lease onshore or offshore public lands for oil, gas, coal, oil shale, and tar sands production. White House science advisor John Holdren says keeping all remaining fossil fuels in the ground is “unrealistic,” but even the most powerful nation in the world cannot negotiate with physics. The laws of physical science are immutable, while the laws of political science are quite mutable.