Congressman Jared Huffman

Representing the 2nd District of California

State Dems’ ambitious plan to keep fossil fuels in the ground

Feb 13, 2016
In The News

WASHINGTON — Even as the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a huge setback to President Obama’s climate agenda by delaying rules to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, two California Democrats opened a major new front in the global warming fight in Washington.

Their intention is to halt new fossil fuel development on all federally controlled public lands, which is where most of the nation’s coal, oil and natural gas is found.

Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael introduced the House version of the Keep It in the Ground Act on Thursday. In the Senate, the legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

It would block all new leases for coal, oil, gas, oil shale and tar sands on public land, including millions of acres the federal government owns in the West.

The legislation would also slap a moratorium on new leases for offshore drilling — and end current leases that are not producing fuel — in the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, where the nation’s oil and gas industry is centered. And it would prohibit all offshore drilling in the Arctic and along the entire Atlantic seaboard.

The plan flies in the face of the “all of the above” energy strategy that the White House has pushed throughout Obama’s presidency to take advantage of the nation’s abundant fossil fuel resources. That shifted just last month, when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands.

Keystone strategy

Huffman’s bill signals an aggressive escalation by the Democratic left on the issue, even as the Supreme Court’s stay last week on the power-plant emissions rules pending the outcome of legal challenges jeopardizes one of the administration’s major climate strategies.

“The transition to a clean energy economy can’t wait,” Huffman said on a conference call with environmental heavyweights Bill McKibben of and Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. Huffman pointed to rising sea levels that are predicted to inundate parts of San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in coming decades.

Boxer co-sponsored identical Senate legislation by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley last fall, joining Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who has turned the Democratic presidential nomination into a pitched battle. Sanders had earlier forced Hillary Clinton to the left in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have delivered Canadian tar-sands oil to Gulf of Mexico refineries.

The proposed ban on fossil fuel extraction on public lands would take that approach to a far more ambitious level.

Huffman said his purpose in introducing a bill that has no chance of passing in the current Congress is to move public opinion and force Washington to follow it, citing the Keystone fight as Exhibit A. Obama killed that project in November.

“It shouldn’t matter whether Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton is in the White House,” said Huffman, a Clinton backer. “Both of them are going to hear the same message and do the right thing.”

‘Game over’

Climate scientist James Hansen famously warned in 2012 that it would be “game over” for the planet if the Canadian tar sands were extracted. The International Energy Agency has estimated that two-thirds of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves have to remain in the ground to avoid a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.

The big win for environmentalists on Keystone led to an obvious next target: The federal government owns a big chunk of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves.

The push for a drilling and mining moratorium picked up steam in September, when 400 activist groups wrote an open letter to the administration to stop oil and gas leases on public lands. By January, Jewell had announced the moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, which account for 40 percent of all U.S. coal production.

Shifting politics

“I’ve been amazed to see how quickly the politics of this has begun to shift,” said McKibben, who led the fight against Keystone and a parallel effort to get corporations, universities and other large investors to divest their stock holdings in oil, gas and coal companies. The crusade has been assisted by a plunge in oil and coal prices, which have made company stocks and new leases alike less attractive.

Two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, have estimated that U.S. lands and waters hold 450 billion tons of potential carbon emissions.

“We have a sobering challenge ahead of us,” Huffman said. “Ninety percent of the world’s fossil fuels have to stay in the ground forever to limit the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.”