At the end of November, the Trump administration tried to downplay the stark findings contained in its own National Climate Assessment (NCA4) by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving when most people were away from their news sources. They failed. It was a blockbuster.
But the NCA4 was not the only report the administration tried to release without fanfare that day.
Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior also released a groundbreaking new report from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) titled “Federal Lands Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sequestration in the United States: Estimates for 2005-2014.”
The title is innocuous, but the report is not. Despite decades of conflict over how our public lands should be used, never before had federal scientists been asked to generate estimates of the role these lands play in global warming.
Now we have our answer, and it’s shocking.
24% of US carbon dioxide emissions come from public lands
Employing a transparent and rigorous methodology, federal scientists used federal data to answer two important questions. First, how much of our total national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are coming off of federal lands and offshore areas? Second, how much carbon do those same federal lands store in their ecosystems?
The answer to the first question is that on average, 24 percent of our national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions came from the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels that originate on public lands and offshore areas. In other words, the coal and oil and natural gas that is extracted from public lands, regardless of where it is used or burned, was responsible for nearly a quarter of our national CO2 emissions. The percentage for methane, an even more potent GHG, was over 7%.
All we have to do is look around the world to see how significant these numbers are. If the 2014 CO2 emissions total from America’s public lands was inserted into a list ranking overall CO2 emissions by country for 2015, it would be fifth on the list—higher than Japan and only slightly lower than Russia!
The report didn’t stop there however. It also broke down the emissions by state. Of course some states have far more federal land than others, but it is still shocking to see that Wyoming generates some 57 percent of all GHG emissions from federal lands—a reminder of just how much pollution is generated by the coal that comes out of the Powder River Basin and elsewhere in Wyoming.
The second part of the study reported on the carbon that is stored in federal land ecosystems. Public lands are important carbon storage “sinks,” as carbon is sequestered in forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems. The study indicated some of the “hotspots” of carbon storage, such as the peat soils of North Carolina and the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, and demonstrated the importance of natural systems as carbon storehouses. A recent study showed that our forests and wetlands have immense potential to store additional carbon if managed carefully, and we now have a means to track our progress on that front.
Science under siege at the Department of the Interior
This new report provides USGS and land managers with the evidence they need to measure how policies can help reduce our emissions and increase carbon sequestration in forests and soils and other natural systems. By regularly updating these data, federal scientists can continue to guide and evaluate policies that reduce risk to public lands and the ecosystems we depend upon.
The information in this report is essential for developing smart climate policies as we reel from the grim news contained in the NCA4–and its findings are made even more urgent by the recent news that global carbon emissions continued to increase—dramatically—in 2018.
Unfortunately, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump administration are instead dismissing the evidence and making it easier, not harder, to drill for oil and gas on public lands. This fits a pattern of ignoring and attacking science when it does not suit their industry agenda, and will have the inevitable effect of ramping up global warming emissions from public lands and pushing us down a dangerous path toward increasingly catastrophic climate impacts.
The numbers and trends disclosed by this report will be essential to measuring and guiding our way to better health and safety in the decades ahead. But until we have responsible leadership in the executive branch, we must demand that Zinke and his colleagues do the job they were hired to do—use the best available information to effectively steward our shared public lands. Anything less is an insult to the notion of public service.
For more, see our new report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior: Our Health, Parks, and Wildlife at Risk.