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Dems propose bill to pause new fossil fuel leases, limit public lands emissions

Several House Democrats are seeking to halt new coal, oil and gas lease sales for a year to force federal agencies to create a plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from public lands and waters by 2040.

The American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act was released Dec. 17 by Democrats, including House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. The proposed legislation seeks to significantly reduce emissions from public lands, where the government leases tracts to oil, gas and coal producers. Fossil fuels from federal lands contributed about 23% of total U.S. carbon emissions in 2014, Grijalva said during a press conference, referencing a 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report.

The bill directs the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service to halt all new fossil fuel leases for a year, requiring the agencies to develop a plan to reach the 2040 goal. If passed, the legislation would require those agencies to meet pollution reduction targets and publish related plans every four years. The government would have to cut net emissions by at least 35% by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 80% by 2035, according to the bill. If the targets are not met, new fossil fuel leases and permits would be prohibited until emissions reach the compliant levels, according to a fact sheet about the bill.

It would also increase the minimum royalty rate for onshore coal, oil and gas from 12.5% to nearly 18.8% and would set new fees on oil and gas leases. These funds would funnel into the newly established Federal Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund to restore land affected by fossil fuel extraction. The fund would also help transition local communities that depend on fossil fuel industries, and it would guarantee pensions, retirement security and wage support for displaced workers until they find other employment or retire.

The proposal would encourage more renewable energy development on public lands and improved land management techniques so the acres absorb more carbon, according to a news release.

"We need to ramp down existing fossil fuel production," Grijalva said during the press conference. "The Trump administration is handing out drilling and coal mining leases like candy."

Conor Bernstein, spokesperson for the National Mining Association, called the bill the most recent example of the "keep-it-in-the ground movement's obsession with imposing regressive costs" on consumers while hurting U.S. energy security.

"Innovation remains the key to effective, affordable and replicable emissions reductions," Bernstein said in a statement. "We need technologies that help reduce emissions from the fuels the world uses and will continue to use, not irresponsible plans to unilaterally lock up our own vast resources."

Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy with the American Petroleum Institute, said the proposal is the wrong approach to addressing climate change.

"U.S. leaders should empower U.S. energy leadership, but restrictive energy policies like a ban on leasing or safe and reliable hydraulic fracturing would threaten America's energy security, household budgets, surrender control of America's energy future, and retreat from America's energy leadership," Macchiarola said. "Our industry invests billions in low- and no-carbon technologies, cleaner fuels, and driving emissions to their lowest level in a generation, all while delivering the energy that American families rely on every day."