Climate + Energy

Greenhouse Gas Cover Up at Interior

In spite of President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order calling on federal agencies to “inventory, report, and adopt targets for reducing their direct and indirect GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions,” our federal government is now trying to cover up over a billion tons of greenhouse gases that it is directly responsible for.

And the blame seems to lie squarely on the U.S. Interior Department.

That’s according to a recent report by The Wilderness Society, which found that the federal government has underestimated its total greenhouse gas footprint by at least 95% because it ignored emissions from coal mining and oil and gas drilling under federal control, yet undertaken by private entities.

The federal government’s estimate, which was prepared by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality in 2011, reported that total greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 66.4 million metric tons.

That’s an impressive amount of greenhouse gas emissions on its own.  Yet according to the latest report, when factoring in all the coal and oil and gas production authorized by the U.S. Interior Department, the actual figure is actually 1,551 million metric tons.

That’s over one and a half billion tons of greenhouse gases–more than 25% of the total greenhouse gas inventory in the United States.  Completely ignored.

Not surprisingly, the report shows the majority of these emissions come from coal production overseen by the Interior Department.  The image below, taken from the report, shows the breakdown in emission sources.

The bulk of this production can be traced back to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, which WildEarth Guardians has reported is a root contributor to global warming in the U.S.

The Powder River Basin provides 43% of the nation’s coal–more than any other region in the nation.  In 2010 alone, the region produced 468,428,000 tons of coal, which was burned in hundreds of coal-fired power plants, leading to an estimated 777.12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, a full 13% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior agency responsible for managing coal, estimates that 1.659 metric tons of carbon dioxide are released for every ton of Powder River Basin coal burned).

All of the coal in in the Powder River Basin is federally owned, meaning the Interior Department was directly responsible for allowing this 777.12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Put another way, the Interior Department has a lot–a lot–of greenhouse gases on its hands.

And while it’s not surprising that such massive amounts of coal mining would lead to such massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, what is surprising is that the Interior Department would completely disregard them.

Because Interior Department officials themselves have recognized that not only are they responsible for these emissions, but that the emissions need to be accounted for.  As Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes commented in the Washington Post last December:

Let’s be forthright on identifying the full greenhouse gas effects, including those downstream…[when it comes to extracting coal in the United States] we know it’s likely to be used as a fuel, it’s going to be combusted, and there will be greenhouse gas implications to that.

With the President himself calling on federal agencies to assess and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no excuse for the Interior’s glaring omissions.  As friends at the Center for American Progress commented:

This study should serve as an important wake up call for President Obama and the leaders in his administration, both of which have made serious commitments to addressing the climate crisis and making the United States the world leader in clean energy development.  Not only has the president pledged to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stated in Copenhagen that “carbon pollution is putting our world—and our way of life—in peril.”

It’s time for the Interior Department to be forthright with its link to global warming, as Mr. Hayes says.  More importantly, it’s time for the Interior Department to stop covering up the problem and start coming up with solutions.

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