A Road Map to Net-Zero Emissions for Fossil Fuel Development on Public Lands

Date01 September 2020
by Jamie Gibbs Pleune, John C. Ruple, and Nada Wolff Culver
Jamie Gibbs Pleune is a Wallace Stegner Center Legal Fellow, S.J. Quinney College of
Law at the University of Utah. John C. Ruple is Professor of Law (research) and Wallace
Stegner Center Legal Fellow, S.J. Quinney College of Law. Nada Wolff Culver is Vice
President, Public Lands and Senior Policy Counsel, at the National Audubon Society.
In producing over 274 million barrels of oil, 3.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 302 million tons of
coal each year, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) decisions signif‌icantly impact U.S. and global
greenhouse gas emissions; fossil fuels produced on federal land account for almost 24 percent of all U.S.
CO2 emissions. This Article provides a legal road map for BLM to require all new oil and gas development to
achieve net-zero emissions as a condition of operation. It argues that BLM has a legal duty to mitigate th e risk
of catastrophic climate change in its permitting decisions. The road map is based on the existing legal struc-
ture and explains how BLM can begin charting a course toward carbon-neutral energy development without
waiting for congressional action.
“Let me be very clear today . . . e world does
have a carbon budget. It’s nite and it’s running
out fast, and we need a rapid transition to net-
ze ro .”¹ e chief executive ocer of BP, Bernard Looney,
might be an unexpected climate spokesman, but his state-
ment reects scientic consensus. In 2019, the Intergovern-
mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special
report emphasizing the importance of limiting global
warming to 1.5° Celsius (C).² Limiting global warming
1. Robert Perkins, BP Sets Target for “Net Zero” Carbon Footprint by 2050,
P O N, Feb. 13, 2020.
2. Summary for Policymakers, in G W  1.5°C. A IPCC S-
 R   I  G W  1.5°C A P-
I L  R G G G E
P,   C  S  G R
  T  C C, S D, 
requires adhering to a carbon budget t hat is being depleted
as time passes.³ For this reason, the World Economic
Forum’s Global Risks Report identied “‘[f]ailure of cli-
mate change mitigation and adaptation’ [as] the number
one risk by impact and the number two by likelihood over
the next ten years.”4
Regarding fossil fuel development on federal lands, the
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sits amidst a myr-
iad of tensions that pull at the fabric of a carbon budget.
Almost one-quarter of al l U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emis-
E  E P (Valérie Masson-Delmotte et al. eds.,
IPCC 2018) [hereinafter IPCC Summary for Policymakers].
3. Id . at 12, para. C.1.3.
4. W E F, T G R R 2020, at 12, 34
(2020), available at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risk_
5. Recognizing that there are multiple types of greenhouse gases (GHGs) with
diering properties, this Article generally refers to GHG emissions as a
whole, without distinguishing between the dierent gases. However, where
a specic statistic or reference identies a particular gas or refers to carbon
dioxide equivalent (CO2e), the specicity is reected in this Article. For
more information about the dierent properties of GHGs and for a deni-
tion of CO2e, see U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Greenhouse
Gas Emissions: Overview of Greenhouse Gases, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemis-
sions/overview-greenhouse-gases (last updated May 28, 2020).
Authors' Note: Thank you to Ryan Lolar for his careful review
and thoughtful comments on drafts of this Article, and to the
Wilburforce Foundation for supporting this research effort.
The Wilburforce Foundation did not review any aspect of
this Article prior to publication or otherwise exercise edito-
rial control. The views expressed herein do not necessarily
represent those of the state of Utah, the University of Utah, or
project funders.
Copyright © 2020 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®, http://www.eli.org, 1-800-433-5120.

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