Your Public Lands Are Killing You

Mar 29, 2019 by

The New York Times

We are squandering millions of acres of our children’s inheritance and using it to destroy the planet.

Timothy Egan

By Timothy Egan

Contributing Opinion Writer

Signs on Wyoming Highway 59, north of Douglas. Credit Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Out in the way beyond, the open land on the far side of the Mueller report and cable news obsessives, is a vast kingdom now being used to hasten the demise of the planet.

You may know this area, more than 500 million acres of empty vales and thick forests, high plains and diamond-cut peaks, as something you saw on a screen saver, or marked as a distant bucket list destination. It’s your American public land endowment, your birthright at citizenship.

What you may not know is that while you were sleeping through the white noise from the White House, your public servants were put under the control of the oil and gas industry. They have been busy giving away drilling rights on your land for next to nothing. More precisely — per acre, for even less than the cost of a Bacon McDouble, which of course you should eat only in moderation.

And they’re doing this in the face of considerable evidence that the rush into industrial plunder of these lands is a huge source of planet-convulsing carbon emissions.

But behold: A history-making lawsuit on behalf of children who will inherit this mess could put an end to the Trump administration plan to drill till we drop. Although the courts have never recognized a constitutional right to a livable environment, the lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, has been given a green light to pursue just that.

A rally by Our Children’s Trust outside the Supreme Court in October in support of the plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States.Credit Win McNamee/Getty Images

“This is no ordinary lawsuit,” wrote federal judge Ann Aiken of Oregon in allowing the case to proceed. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

If that judicial statement was a stunner, what happened this month in another case was equally extraordinary. For the first time, a federal judge temporarily halted drilling on federal land because the government did not take into account the climate change impact of that drilling.

Forget about the unworkable Green New Deal, which Republicans are using as a prop to show how silly both parties are. Cow flatulence! No air travel! The end of “hamberders!” It’s been a gift to right-wing demagogues, looking to further dumb down a Republican base that doesn’t believe anything a wounded earth is trying to tell them.

The real action is unfolding now, on federal land. Prior administrations allowed for considerable oil and gas drilling in swaths of the public domain in the West. But President Trump is holding a fire sale for his fellow fossil fools. The amount of federal land offered for drilling is three times what it was under President Barack Obama.

It would be one thing if we needed this oil. We don’t. The world is awash in cheap crude. And it would be another if these lands weren’t being used for something that poses an existential threat. They are. Almost 25 percent of American earth-warming emissions originate from industrial action involving public land or offshore leases.

The United States is the biggest carbon polluter in history, and now ranks behind only China in greenhouse gas emissions. As well, we’re now the largest crude oil producer in the world. And we’ve become a leading exporter of that oil, just to show how bad of a global citizen we can be.

If you force the Trump administration to stop bingeing on public land, you can make an immediate impact on the amount of earth-warming carbon the United States spits into the atmosphere.

Such an injunction is what the children represented by a trust in the Juliana lawsuit are trying to do. And it was that sort of injunction, acknowledging the role of drilling on public land in harming us all, that temporarily shut down new leasing on 300,000 acres in Wyoming this month.

Another big step is to prevent David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, from becoming interior secretary. A stooge for his former clients, this Trump nominee was the deputy secretary, while the top job was held by a strange man, Ryan Zinke, who paraded around on a horse named Tonto.

It was Bernhardt who tried to block release of a federal analysis showing that two widely used pesticides were so toxic that they“jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 species of birds, fish and other life-forms without lobbyists, as my colleague Eric Lipton reported this week

David Bernhardt at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination for interior secretary.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

You can see who Bernhardt is working for: It’s not all the living things under the domain of the emperor of the outdoors. Nor is he looking out for the interests of children, who will have to live with the consequences of action taken by adults in service to carbon pollution.

About those kids: Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently took to the floor of his chamber to say that the best response to the mounting chaos of epic floods, searing wildfires and other symptoms of a sick earth is to get married and have children.

What he didn’t say was that we hold our public land in trust for the Americans of tomorrow. The least we can do is stop using it to imperil their world.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter (@nytegan).

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