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President Obama, Stop Selling Us Out: End Oil, Gas and Coal Extraction on Public Lands

Climate

On Friday across our nation and the world conscientious members of churches, motivated students at universities and schools and civic-minded employees of many U.S. cities will join together in calling on the institutions that they love to take an act of fiscal prudence and global conscience to ensure that we have a future worth fighting for.

The Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of coal on public lands, roughly equivalent to more than 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon when burned. Photo credit: eastcoalfax/Flickr

As a part of Global Divestment Day, they will be asking the leaders of their churches, schools and cities to divest from companies that extract and burn fossil fuels.

So far, the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement has focused on investment assets of academic, religious and municipal institutions. While that’s a smart starting point, it misses a huge opportunity and challenge: expanding targeted assets to include those owned by all Americans. I’m referring to the coal, oil and gas that underlie our public lands and waters, the carbon that belongs to all of us.

Last year, a full quarter of all fossil fuels produced in the U.S. came from our public lands, our nation’s single biggest source which created a whopping $110 billion in royalty, rents and bonus payments to the U.S. treasury. Divestment won’t reach its full moral promise until we divest from burning the fossil fuels we all own.

Luckily, ending the sale of public carbon is very simple. Selling off future reserves is entirely up to the President. Without having to wait for a do-nothing Congress, President Obama can stop new sales from proceeding with the stroke of a pen. That federal divestment would be a real climate legacy.

A credit to the energy and brilliance of its activists, fossil fuel divestment is probably the fastest growing environmental movement. Divestment groups have formed on hundreds of college campuses in just the last couple years.

A few groups have already won. Some are staging massive campus protests, while Harvard students are suing their university to force divestment. Thirty U.S. cities have agreed to divest and organizations as diverse as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Oxford Diocese of the Church of England are getting their money completely out of coal, oil and gas companies.

It makes sense. Fossil fuels are a bad financial bet. Late last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the eight coal-mining stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange were down an average of 29 percent in 2014. With solar and wind now achieving price parity, coal is going the way of the Betamax.

But fossil fuel divestment is about much more than money. We just experienced the world’s hottest year in history, part of the trend of the 14 hottest years on record occurring in just the last 15 years. To continue to profit from coal, oil and gas dooms our children and grandchildren to a world that will be increasingly inhospitable. We each face an unassailable moral imperative to divest completely from the fossil fuel business.

While many Americans have financial connections to fossil fuel companies through the investments of our towns, churches, colleges and retirement funds, all Americans have collective ownership of vast coal, oil and gas reserves sold off daily from our public lands and waters.

Ending extraction of the fossil fuels we all own is the moral equivalent of divestment by the churches and schools we attend. Just like our towns, churches, colleges and retirement funds have been investing in fossil fuels without most of us ever thinking about it, our government has been doing the same. And in the same way that college kids are calling for universities to divest, all Americans must demand the same of our government.

Of course, just as student energy is fueling the divestment campaigns on campuses, locking down our public carbon is not going to happen without sustained public pressure.

But there is every reason to believe that a campaign for our collective divestment from the public land fossil fuel business can take off just as quickly. The stakes are as high as the future health of our planet and it is surely our highest moral imperative not to sell that future for our own quick buck.

Obama has the authority to cut U.S. fossil fuel production by 25 percent. It’s our job to show our support for such a bold, brave and necessary move.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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