Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Conservation groups agree that Washington can’t seem to make up its mind whether we are really in “code red”  for climate change or not. The Biden administration’s plans to offer 734,000 acres of public lands for oil and gas leasing prompted the groups to file formal objections to the juxtaposed positions. The proposed leases contain up to 246 million tons of climate pollution, or as much as 62 coal-fired power plants emit in one year. 

“We can’t confront the climate crisis if we can’t keep fossil fuels in the ground,” says Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director. “Selling more public lands for fracking is nothing short of a massively unjust broken promise by President Biden to put climate first.”

The filing with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management contends public land is off limits for leasing because of the government’s ongoing failure under multiple laws to assess and avoid harm to land, water, communities and endangered species. IPCC warnings and several analyses, including by the International Energy Agency, show that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires no new investment in fossil fuel projects.  

In January the Biden administration paused new oil and gas leasing pending a review of the program. A June court order lifted the leasing pause but retained the administration’s authority over federal oil and gas. The Biden administration has approved more than 2,800 new permits to drill. That rate of 351 per month outpaces the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month in fiscal years 2018 to 2020. According to Albuquerque Business First, in New Mexico, 37 new drilling permits were approved between Sept. 27 and Oct. 3. Of those 37 permits, 20 were approved on federal land.

“The government is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with our future,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. She said the science is clear that to maintain an even chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, approximately 60 percent of global oil and gas must be left in the ground.

“Judges in several recent court decisions have agreed that it’s illegal to allow any new leasing without looking at the potential harm to the climate, wildlife habitat and groundwater,” Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity said. Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

“Opening more than 700,000 acres in six Western states, including within the headwaters of the Colorado River—the water supply for 40 million people—to oil and gas extraction, and the inevitable impacts to our climate and rivers heads us in exactly the wrong direction. It will only hasten the collapse of both,” said Kate Hudson, western U.S. advocacy coordinator with Waterkeeper Alliance. 

Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year. 

Raena Garcia, fossil fuels and public lands campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said, “A full accounting of the climate impacts of the leasing program would show what we all know: New leasing is incompatible with Biden’s climate commitments.”