A Road Map to Net-Zero? BLM’s Authority to Mitigate Climate Change on Public Lands

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Almost one-quarter of all U.S. CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels extracted from public lands. Producing more than 274 million barrels of oil, 3.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 302 million tons of coal each year, BLM’s management decisions have a significant impact on climate change. In this month’s issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, authors Jamie Gibbs Pleune, John Ruple, and Nada Wolff Culver argue that the Bureau has not only the authority, but a legal duty to mitigate climate change in its permitting decisions. Using existing legal structures, they provide a road map for requiring all new BLM oil and gas development to achieve net-zero emissions.

public landUnder the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), BLM is legally obligated to manage various resources “without permanent impairment of the productivity of the land and the quality of the environment,” including resources related to water, environment, ecology, air, and atmosphere. The article analyzes BLM’s statutory duties alongside scientific consensus on the irreversible damage of climate change. BLM’s current approach to leasing, which often allows an unmitigated increase in greenhouse gas emissions, violates FLPMA’s mandate to avoid permanently impairing the environment and to manage resources with a multigenerational investment horizon.

The authors provide examples where BLM offices have used statutory and regulatory provisions to regulate greenhouse gas impacts of mineral leasing operations, including the application of best management practices and conditions of approval to reduce or mitigate emissions. They outline a process for streamlining these measures to ensure consistency and adherence to a science-based carbon budget at all stages of the leasing process. This proposed legal strategy would allow BLM to impose a net-zero requirement on all new leases and incorporate greenhouse gas mitigation measures for oil and gas leasing and development more broadly.

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