science environment

Lawmakers Want To Keep Fossil Fuels In Ground

By Ashley Ahearn (KUOW/EarthFix)
Nov. 4, 2015 5 p.m.
A coal mine operation in Wyoming.

A coal mine operation in Wyoming.

Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix


A Northwest senator is behind a proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by going to the very start of the carbon cycle: the coal, oil and natural gas that has yet to be extracted from the ground.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley's Keep It In The Ground Act would halt new leases for fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. He announced the bill's introduction Wednesday.  An estimated 10 percent of the world's remaining carbon reserves lie beneath U.S. public lands. Scientists say that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Burning coal, petroleum and natural gas emits greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change.

Merkley is co-sponsoring the bill with Sens. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont — who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination — and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Merkley said the impacts of carbon pollution will only get worse in the coming decades if the burning of fossil fuels goes on unchecked.

"One key part of the solution is lying literally beneath our feet. A major contribution to this challenge would be stopping new fossil fuel leases on our public lands," he said. "Our public lands should be managed for the public good, not for private profit."

The bill is unlikely to  move in the Republican-controlled Senate. Opposition is expected to focus on increased energy costs, reduced federal revenue, and the threat of job losses.

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben helped shape the legislation. He said the bill was important, despite its long odds of passage.

"Most legislation doesn't pass the first year it's introduced," McKibben said in an interview. "By that token what was the point of asking for the right of women to vote? But I do think that it's clearly the direction we're moving in."

The legislation would also prohibit offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic and stop any new leases for drilling in the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier this week Washington Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray joined four other members of Congress in calling for the reform of  U.S. policy around coal mining on public lands. Their letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urged her to bring the market price for coal in line with the true costs of climate change caused by the burning of coal.