President Obama Urged to End Fossil Fuel Leases on Public Land

More than 400 organizations have joined together, calling for the president to marry his statements about protecting the climate with policy.

Nearly 67 million acres of public land is leased for fossil fuel extraction.
Nearly 67 million acres of public land are leased for fossil fuel extraction. Credit: WildEarth Guardians via Flickr

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A coalition of more than 400 groups have signed a letter to President Obama they will send on Tuesday urging him to stop the sale of new oil and gas drilling leases on public land to combat climate change. The signees include indigenous groups, labor unions, scientists, religious leaders and environmental organizations.

“Over the past decade, the burning of fossil fuels from federal leasing has resulted in nearly a quarter of all U.S. energy-related emissions and nearly 4 percent of global emissions,” the letter states. “Despite this pollution and the looming climate threat, your administration continues to lease publicly owned fossil fuels, endangering the health and welfare of communities and the planet.”

The campaign comes four days after the Obama administration announced it would open nearly 40 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas drilling leases, and one month after it approved a permit for Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic.

The letter campaign was organized by the Rainforest Action Network,, Friends of the Earth, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and WildEarth Guardians. Signatories will also gather in front of the White House on Tuesday morning in support.

“This egregious drilling, fracking and mining is devastating the health of communities and endangering the stability of our climate,” Lindsey Allen, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, said in a statement. “We are simply asking President Obama to stop selling off our national forests, oceans and sacred heritage sites for pennies on the dollar and slow the effects of climate change by stopping fossil fuel leasing on public lands.”

The groups argue that banning all new oil and gas drilling on public lands would keep nearly 450 billion tons of carbon pollution in the ground—the equivalent of annual emissions from 118,000 coal-fired power plants. It would also align President Obama’s policy decisions with his statements on the urgency of climate action, they said.

Of the 67 million acres currently leased to the fossil fuel industry, the Obama administration has approved nearly 15 million acres of public land and 21 million acres of ocean for drilling in the past seven years.

“The best way to prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere is to leave them where they lie,” Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of the environmental group Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “You can’t be a climate leader while continuing to open up large amounts of federal land to extraction and encouraging continued fossil fuel development.”

Coal makes up the largest share of untapped fossil fuels from public lands, equal to 212 billion tons of carbon pollution, according to an August analysis by the environmental research group EcoShift Consulting. Shale oil comes second, with 142 billion tons of carbon.

Public land is owned by the American public but managed by federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, among others. In total, there are 640 million acres of public land in the U.S., accounting for 28 percent of the country, and more than 1.7 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf.

“The cost of continuing federal fossil fuel leasing to our land, climate and communities is too high,” the letter states. “The science is clear that, to maintain a good chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of warming, the world must keep the vast majority of its remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Federal fossil fuels—those that you control—are the natural place to begin.”