Why Pick Federal Lands as (the) Climate Target? Examining Potential Environmental Justice Impacts

In this March 25, 2014 photo, workers keep an eye on well heads during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. oil well, near Mead, Colo. This is not federal land. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

There are many ways to decrease our country’s carbon footprint.  But for some reason, it seems like federal lands oil and gas leasing has become a symbolic, if not very useful, preferred intervention of some groups (some charitable foundations).  In a recent op-ed in the Denver Post,  Jennifer Rokala of the Center for Western Priorities wrote:

President Biden’s infrastructure plan is a bold vision to move America to a clean energy future–but vision is meaningless without action.

Next month, the president will head to a global climate summit, urging world leaders to cut carbon emissions, while he simultaneously expands oil and gas drilling at home and does nothing to fix a broken leasing system. When the president encourages Congress and the world to act, he has an obligation to lead by example.

Now, as we’ve discussed previously, it seems eminently reasonable to me for the Admin to be leery of being in contempt of court with regard to the leasing process. Is it actually true to say “Biden has expanded oil and gas drilling at home?”.. or is the Admin just following rules, plans, etc. currently in place.. that legally they would need to follow specific procedures to change? So to whom is this particular climate intervention such a big issue? Easiest to get maximum climate benefits (don’t think so)? Some kind of low-hanging political fruit? Least impact to poor communities? And while we think mostly of onshore, not to forget offshore federal is also part of the deal. Some federal oil producing states (Mississippi, Louisiana, as well as onshore New Mexico) are among the poorest US states.

At the same time, this interesting article from another Jennifer, Hernandez of the Breakthrough Institute, touches on impacts of such policies on energy workers who happen to be people of color.

But unaffordable utility bills are only half the story. California climate policies also require the elimination of hundreds of thousands of conventional energy jobs, and will adversely affect millions of other jobs in energy-dependent and related industries. These sectors provide stable, higher-paying employment for less educated residents, the majority of whom are workers of color and recent immigrants. In 2019, 29 percent of all new immigrants had not graduated from high school.[42]A further 20 percent finished high school but did not attend college. As better-paying blue collar work has evaporated, most have ended up in the state’s lowest-paying jobs — that massive cohort of nearly 40 percent of Californians who cannot afford to pay routine monthly expenses.

An analysis of 2017 data by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) found that “across all levels of education, earnings are higher in oil and gas industries compared to the all industry average.”[43]The energy sector provides over 152,100 direct and 213,860 indirect and induced jobs in California that pay higher wages and benefits for individuals with lower levels of education. This workforce is ethnically and racially diverse, and about 63 percent of all employees have less than a bachelor’s degree.

LAEDC also showed that another 3.9 million California jobs (16.5 percent of total state employment) rely on purchases from or use products sold by state energy producers, including chemical, machinery, and metal products manufacturing, wholesale trade, utilities, and transportation, as well as professional, scientific, and technical services.[44]Most of these sectors also provide higher-paying jobs for workers of color, often in more affordable areas of the state. These jobs are also at risk from the forced elimination of the in-state energy sector.

California climate advocates have utterly failed to provide a convincing explanation for how workers of color employed in existing energy and energy-dependent sectors will support their families once these industries are gone. Many, like the fantastically wealthy, famously haughty John Kerry, now the nation’s “climate envoy,” airily suggest that green employment will replace job losses in the fossil fuel sector. Even the staunchly progressive Washington Post conceded that this was unlikely, noting that rapid growth in the wind and solar industries over the next decade could plausibly replace at most 20 percent of the workforce of the coal industry alone.[45]

Trade unions and their Democratic political allies aren’t buying what California’s climate cognoscenti are selling either. “Career opportunities for renewables are nowhere near what they are in gas and oil, and domestic energy workers highly value the safety, reliable duration and compensation of oil and gas construction jobs,” North America’s Building Trades Unions said in July 2020 after conducting two studies of the industry.[46]“We can hate on oil, but the truth is our refinery jobs are really good middle class jobs,” echoed California state senator and labor leader Lorena Gonzalez. “Jobs can’t be an afterthought to any climate change legislation. We must have specific plans that accompany industry changes.”[47]

There are no such plans. California’s oil consumption continues, slowing only with the pandemic, while progressive climate elites see no irony in forcing California’s minority communities out of jobs while importing more oil from Saudi Arabia and other countries not known for adherence to progressive labor, gender, environmental, or civil rights values.

I also ran across this article on “Civil rights readers oppose swift move off natural gas

Hernandez also has some other interesting thoughts on housing and transportation, which are related to other TSW topics of interest. I’ll take that up in another post.

8 thoughts on “Why Pick Federal Lands as (the) Climate Target? Examining Potential Environmental Justice Impacts”

  1. Hydraulic fracturing can waste up to 16 million gallons of water per well so here in New Mexico that’s often too high a price to pay not to keep fossil fuels in the ground especially if that petroleum goes to make plastic.

    In a related vane, according to one agriculture columnist ethanol has plateaued because electric vehicles are reducing the need to burn diesel fuel to grow corn while Indigenous communities are fighting to keep foreign miners from gouging lithium from public lands.

    • But what if the petroleum goes to making Covid masks? And is it better for lithium to come from private lands? And would the miners themselves be “foreign” or the owners?

  2. “There are no jobs on a dead planet

    Climate action is a trade union issue. We have a vital role to
    play to protect jobs in existing workplaces and industries by
    demanding industrial transformation, to organise new quality
    jobs in the emerging green economy and to fight for the Just
    Transition measures that ensure we leave no one behind.”

    Sharan Burrow, General Secretary
    International Trade Union Confederation

    “Governments are still rushing into new
    fossil-based investments, when in order
    to remain within the 2°C range, a third
    of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and
    more than 80 % of current coal reserves
    should remain unused.”


    With regard to public lands, minerals management is “low hanging fruit” there because it is directly subject to government control, where the government can, in fact, “lead by example” in keeping carbon “unused.” And who else will lead?

  3. The amount of plastic in the municipal waste stream dwarfs remaining oil and gas reserves in the lower 48 so masks manufactured with recycled materials are far less carbon intensive.

    Ores containing lithium are hideously carbon intensity to mine but the General Mining Law of 1872 allows foreign companies to exploit public lands instead of sharing the pecuniary rewards with landowners.

    In the Second Congressional District there are hundreds of orphan wells but because New Mexico is flush with cash operators just walk away from them leaving the state and feds to do the work to cap them.

  4. If we can’t do right by the climate on public lands (where the public interest should be paramount) then how the heck an we ever hope to get it right on private lands? It’s a place to start, and it should be easy. Unfortunately, the status quo has a lot of inertia. That why Forest Service “restoration” projects are virtually always achieved via timber sales, even though timber ales are not the best way to do restoration.

    • Hmm “do right by the climate”… what exactly would that mean to you? I guess it could mean all kinds of things, and that’s why I’m opening the dialogue.

  5. “Trade unions and their Democratic political allies aren’t buying what California’s climate cognoscenti are selling either. “Career opportunities for renewables are nowhere near what they are in gas and oil, and domestic energy workers highly value the safety, reliable duration and compensation of oil and gas construction jobs,” North America’s Building Trades Unions said in July 2020…” This article highlighting a report on the lack of diversity in the renewable energy sector underscores that statement. The report found White, non-Hispanic men held three-fifths of jobs in the clean energy sector and women and minority employees were the first to be let go in the COVID economic downturn. https://www.utilitydive.com/news/report-the-face-of-clean-energy-is-predominantly-white-and-male/606502/
    On the overall point, why federal lands? Because federal minerals are the only US minerals over which the federal government can exercise some kind of veto authority, subject to a lot of legal issues falling their way. But energy and critical minerals (for the “clean” energy industry) are fungible. If we don’t get them in the US we will get oil, natural gas, lithium, cobalt, copper somewhere else. “Out of sight, out of mind” by exporting the impacts of our energy demand off-shore, as Sharon points out, is not a great moral argument.

    • Doing it because everybody else is doing it is not a great argument either. To expand on a popular philosophy of causing change, “It all starts with us.”


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