But environmentalists in recent years have stepped up their organizing around another idea: preventing extraction of coal, oil, and gas directly; that is, targeting the “upstream” part of energy development too.
They’re animated by analyses that have concluded that huge amounts of fossil fuels globally must remain untapped in order to prevent the most dangerous levels of global warming.
A widely circulated paper in the journal Nature last year estimates that worldwide, a third of all oil reserves, half of natural-gas reserves, and 80 percent of coal reserves should remain unburned in the coming decades in order to hold the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
In recent months, Obama has appeared increasingly willing to embrace the environmental movement’s “keep it in the ground” mantra, at least when it comes to the most carbon-heavy fossil fuels.
Here’s what Obama said last fall when rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, the culmination of a battle over activists’ efforts to stymie growth of carbon-intensive oil sands production in Canada.
“Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” Obama said at the time.
The administration didn’t throw that kind of rhetorical red meat to activists on Friday as it announced that it will stop selling or processing new coal leases during the multi-year review of the management of coal on federal lands.
Officials emphasized that the new policy will not hinder coal production anytime soon, noting that companies have already leased enough coal reserves to sustain current production levels from federal lands for 20 years.
“Even as our nation transitions to a clean-energy future, coal will continue to be an important domestic energy source in the years ahead,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters Friday.
But it’s nonetheless an overt move by the Obama administration to consider the climatic effects of producing the huge deposits of fossil fuels that underlie federal lands. The in-depth review of the coal program, which Interior said will be the first in 30 years, will consider “how best to assess the climate impacts” of continued coal production on federal lands and use of that resource.
It’s also exploring several other aspects of the program, such as the return to taxpayers under a system that allows producers to pay royalties as low as 2 percent in some cases; how to make it more competitive; and decisions around when and where to lease.
The extent to which Obama’s willing to embrace “keep it in the ground” also animates a battle over offshore drilling that’s unfolding as his presidency nears its end.