Protesters at the Paris climate change talks in December call for keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Reuters / Jacky Naegelen

The latest environmental rallying cry—“Keep It in the Ground”—will help stop pollution. But that policy’s effect on carbon emissions isn’t as clear.

The last few months have been pretty good for saving the planet.

Environmentalists have claimed a string of victories with Arctic oil drilling, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Paris climate change deal, and a moratorium on new federal coal drilling. Climate change has raised the stakes about as high as they can go, and climate activists have to decide where to focus their energy and political momentum next in the critical years before global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. For the time being, the movement has coalesced around the idea of keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

The explicit language of “keep it in the ground” appears in a letter written by 400 green advocates requesting that President Obama cut off drilling on federal lands. A bill with that name sits in the U.S. Senate, waiting for the climate change-skeptic who chairs the committee to grant it a hearing. The websites of leading environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace proclaim Keep It in the Ground as a top priority for fighting climate change.

If the world’s coal, gas, and oil companies all stopped drilling, the global supply of fossil fuels would eventually disappear, and the emission of greenhouse gases would decline. What the Keep It in the Ground movement seeks right now is a more modest and attainable goal: for the president to stop new drilling on public lands. This would save many a landscape from the spoilage inherent in the extraction process and prevent the pollution associated with drilling, but it would not target carbon emissions directly. It would target a fraction of the future source of materials that could eventually be burned to release carbon.

In other words, the tactic (stop drilling on public lands) doesn’t fully match the mission (stop greenhouse gas emissions). You can stop a limited amount of extraction and still have an emissions problem. Alternatively, directly attacking emissions would help ramp down drilling operations due to a drop in demand. A Keep It in the Ground policy makes the most sense in combination with efforts targeting emissions now—not on its own.

The once-niche concern of climate change now draws the world together. Environmentalists have the political space to push big ideas. Maybe it’s a carbon tax or maybe it’s an overhaul of the nation’s transportation system. (Obama himself just proposed a hybrid of both.) Maybe it’s something else entirely. But the public conversation climate activists are having now needs go beyond Keep It in the Ground to achieve the stated goal of halting the most deleterious climate effects.

Native American members of the Cowboys and Indian Alliance, a group of ranchers, farmers, and indigenous leaders, participate in protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington on April 22, 2014. (Reuters / Gary Cameron)

An attainable goal

Keep It in the Ground came to national prominence with the resistance to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The Obama administration’s seven-year deliberation over the 1,661-mile project—which would have carried Canadian tar-sands oil to the U.S.—gave it enough time to become a potent symbol for factions on both sides of the debate. The opposing coalition included national environmental organizations but also local farmers, Native American tribes, and people who didn’t want a pipeline tearing up their backyard.

In the midst of the Keystone debate, a coalition of 400 groups and individuals sent a letter in September 2015 asking Obama to stop all new leasing of publicly owned fossil fuels. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced a “Keep It in the Ground” bill on November 4.

”In terms of our citizen-owned reserves, only 10 percent of them are under lease, or to put it differently, 90 percent of them have not been leased,” Merkley tells CityLab. “Does it make any sense to lease out any more of them given the challenge we face in the world?” (Bernie Sanders cosponsored the bill, which has not yet had a hearing; Hillary Clinton endorsed No future extraction” on public lands after the debate on February 4, 2016.)

Then, on November 6, Obama announced the death of Keystone using some of the same language environmentalists had adopted:

“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.”

The Bureau of Land Management began postponing regularly scheduled mineral rights auctions, and the successful Paris climate negotiations added to the momentum. In January, the Department of the Interior froze new leases for coal mining on public lands pending a new environmental review of the practice. That move jeopardized a revenue stream that had brought in $10.3 billion over the previous decade. Keep It in the Ground advocacy proved it could achieve results.

Will it stop people from burning fossil fuels?

The January coal moratorium sounds like a clear victory for Keep It in the Ground proponents, except for some sobering comments from none other than the author of the policy herself, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

“We don’t believe it will have any impact whatsoever on coal production,” Jewell said in a press call following the announcement. “As we have looked state by state, the average is a 20-year run rate, at current production, off of coal mines currently under lease.” Translation: Since current operations will continue for years, the government’s decision to freeze new coal leases won’t make it harder for anyone to get their hands on coal to burn.

It’s possible these words were an attempt to placate jittery power plant owners. But if we take Jewell at her word, this declaration poses a major challenge to the internal logic of Keep It in the Ground. The idea is to cut carbon emissions by making it harder to extract fossil fuels from the ground. If stopping new leases won’t affect the amount of coal mined in the U.S. for at least 20 years, it also won’t be touching the consumption of CO2 during that time.

Cheap natural gas has been cutting into coal’s market share over the last decade, a trend expected to continue when the EPA’s Clean Power Plan goes into effect. (Reuters / Jim Urquhart)

Marissa Knodel, a climate change campaigner at environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, says the effect of the policy on fossil fuel availability isn’t really known yet. “Price for a fossil fuel is not just a domestic thing—it’s a global issue, it’s a global commodity,” she says. “The impact of limiting domestic production of fossil fuels and the impact on prices is still something that we’ll have to see, but we are researching that.”

Since the problem at hand is the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it makes sense to focus on where people are consuming fossil fuels now—not where they’re coming from in the future, says Stanford University economics professor Frank Wolak. The most direct way to cut back on greenhouse gases is to raise the price on emitting, he says. That’s what happened by accident over the past decade, when natural gas became cheaper than coal: energy firms started buying the cleaner commodity.

If not climate protection, at least environmental protection

Even if cutting off federal drilling doesn’t affect the price of oil, it would be productive in other ways, says David Goldstein, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program.

An end to public fossil fuel extraction could act as a self-enforcement mechanism for the country to follow through on its carbon-cutting policies, he says. Jamming the supply even 20 years downstream will force companies to start planning ahead for the fade-out of domestic oil and gas production. It also could save investors from mistakenly putting their money into fossil fuel projects while the government is working to phase out that source of energy.

“The Keep It in the Ground movement is very important because it expresses the government’s confidence that the rest of its suite of policies will work,” Goldstein says. “You can see the apparent hypocrisy of saying, ‘Well, if we do all these things that we’re doing, demand for oil is only going to be X, but we’re going to authorize drilling for more than X, because what the heck? ’”

The government’s willingness to forgo revenue from public minerals would also send a message to the rest of the world that it’s serious about following through on the commitments at Paris. ”If we’re going to speak to the world and help lead the world in this hugely important effort, we have to be willing to take on changing our habits,” Merkley says.

The policy also highlights the fact that fighting climate change and protecting the environment are two distinct but related goals. Regardless of whether Keep It in the Ground meaningfully alters greenhouse gas emissions, it will protect the landscapes imbued with mineral deposits, and their inhabitants, far better than continued drilling. It just might do so at an opportunity cost of letting the planet warm.

If emissions are the problem, fight emissions

The signaling effects of a federal fossil-fuel moratorium would be profound, but they don’t rule out the possibility of a more effective approach to halting greenhouse gas emissions. Many argue that a carbon tax would work better, because it tackles the act of carbon emission itself, not the upstream supply of the stuff that will eventually release emissions.

“The right answer has been known for many, many years, and if the environmental community focused on the right answer they might have a shot at getting the right answer implemented—and that is, you price carbon,” says Wolak, who directs Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development. “If you price carbon, you’re pricing the attribute that is the thing you want to prevent.”

Limiting a subset of U.S. domestic supply years down the road amounts to “lunacy,” Wolak says, especially because surplus oil is swamping world markets and making prices cheaper than they’ve been in years. Even if drilling stopped on federal lands and drove up prices years from now, that would actually boost the profits of fossil fuel companies—presumably not the sort of people environmentalists hope to enrich. A carbon tax, on the other hand, would put additional revenue in the hands of the government.

With Congress controlled by a Republican party that generally rejects the scientific understanding of climate change, and that made helping out the rarefied community of American oil producers a top legislative goal in December’s budget negotiations, prospects for passing a carbon tax look dicey. “Pricing of carbon is a logical, market-efficient strategy, but there is no prospect under the Koch brother-owned majority in the U.S. Senate that that is going to pass legislatively,” Merkley says.

There could be some room for a compromise. Ted Halstead made the case in The Atlantic that a revenue-neutral carbon “Fee and Dividend” should appeal to conservatives as “a climate solution fully consistent with the philosophy of limited government,” because it harnesses market principles and will actually shrink government’s presence in subsidizing energy companies and bailing out people from climate disasters. Conservative proponents of such a carbon tax include George Shultz, who was Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, and Henry Paulson, President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary.

A carbon tax could flounder in divisive politics when other strategies could get the job done, argues the NRDC’s Goldstein. He suggests revamping land use and transportation planning to reduce the total miles traveled in a region, thereby cutting greenhouse gas emissions, too. The Southern California Association of Governments passed a sustainability strategy along those lines to meet state mandates—and did it with support from both Democratic and Republican city governments, Goldstein notes.

Obama synthesized both approaches in his new proposal to fund a clean transit overhaul with a $10 per barrel fee imposed on oil companies. That would simultaneously make it more expensive to burn gas and create the infrastructure so that people could get around without it. Congressional Republicans wasted no time in declaring it “dead on arrival.” Still, Obama’s idea raised the ante on the climate debate. It’s no longer “How can we reduce emissions eventually?” but “How can we reduce emissions now?”

Where to focus now

The next couple decades will make or break the world’s ability to halt global warming before it destroys the polar icecaps and wreaks irreversible chaos on the climate. Given the stakes, where environmentalists choose to put their energy now makes a tremendous difference. A low-carbon society will be one that does not habitually extract fossil fuels from its public lands, to be sure, but focusing on that policy now doesn’t solve the problem of carbon emissions.

That’s not to say this is an either/or situation. “I don’t see these ideas really in competition with each other as there being one answer,” Merkley says. “Let’s pursue multiple strategies.” He adds that some of his Democratic colleagues have introduced carbon tax legislation, and that his Keep It in the Ground Act is intended to complement renewable energy incentives and research into power grid stability and energy storage.

But Keep It in the Ground has dominated the messaging of climate action groups in recent months. These communications frame an indirect attack on carbon emissions as the best available way to slash them. That’s misleading. And while it’s true that an executive action is more politically viable right now, that’s only because of the massive grassroots mobilization behind the concept. What if environmental activists were stirring up that kind of groundswell around revenue-neutral carbon tax?

An election year offers a prime opportunity to broadcast the concept to millions of voters. It’s up to the leaders of the green movement to decide what message the public will hear.

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