Climate activists heard a bit of welcome news during Tuesday’s State of the Union address: a hint from President Obama that he’ll soon reform the way public lands are leased to fossil-fuel companies for mining and drilling.
“Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels,” Obama told the audience at the Capitol. “That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”
For years environmentalists have asked the Interior Department to reevaluate federal leasing programs, arguing that the government effectively subsidizes coal and oil companies by charging below-market rates for access to publicly owned resources. In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, for instance, the government sells coal at about one-fifth the price of Appalachian coal, and undervaluation has cost taxpayers tens of billions in lost revenue.
It’s also undermined Obama’s climate agenda. Fossil-fuel production on public lands surged to an unprecedented level under his leadership. According to the Center for American Progress, the losses and damages related to carbon pollution from Powder River Basin coal alone amount to $19 billion a year. Overall, all of the coal, oil, and gas extracted from public lands each year has the potential to release as much carbon pollution as the annual emissions from 280 million cars—or as much as 21 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States.
In the wake of their victory over the Keystone XL pipeline, green groups are looking toward public lands as the next locus of the campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Ultimately, climate organizations would like to see all fossi-fuel production on public lands come to an end. Obama’s reforms aren’t likely to go that far—the White House says it will release details in the coming weeks—but even a move towards factoring the social cost of carbon into the price of those public assets would be a significant change to a program that has been repeatedly exposed as corrupt and mismanaged.