The Bureau of Land Management’s NEPA Review of Land Plans: Is Net Zero A Reasonable Alternative?

Posted on August 20, 2019 by Robert Uram

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to review and revise its land use plans periodically. In the current round of reviews, the BLM is seeking to roll back protections for areas of critical environmental concern, to reduce lands managed for wilderness, and to greatly expand lands available for oil and gas and coal leasing. Since production and consumption of oil, gas, and coal result in the release of vast amounts of carbon, these changes threaten to worsen the outlook for global warming.

Before it can adopt these land use changes, the BLM must, of course, comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Now nearing its 50th anniversary, NEPA is one of the most important federal environmental laws. While NEPA does not mandate that a federal agency take actions that are most protective of the environment, it does require decision makers to fully disclose the environmental impacts of any major federal action in an Environmental Impact Statement. Additionally, an EIS must present and consider reasonable alternatives to a proposed federal action that might mitigate environmental impacts. Consideration of alternatives is at the heart of an EIS. An EIS that does not cover a full range of reasonable alternatives is deficient.

Increased future fossil fuel development on public lands will lead to enormous increases in climate change gases. The fact that fossil fuel development affects global temperatures has long been clear to federal decision makers. Indeed, as long ago as 1979, the Programmatic EIS for the Federal Coal Leasing program warned that coal use was a contributor to greenhouse gases and could result in increased temperatures of 2-3° Celsius. The BLM will certainly make some attempt to disclose these impacts, but mere disclosure is not enough. The BLM needs to present meaningful alternatives that would address climate change concerns.

To date, the BLM has been considering a short list of alternatives in its land use planning EISs,  a no-action alternative that would keep the current land use plan in place, and several alternatives that vary the amount of protection for sensitive lands and the extent of lands open to fossil fuel development. If Judge Skelly Wright (the author of the seminal NEPA case, Calvert Cliffs v. Atomic Energy Commission) were alive today, he would undoubtedly call the BLM’s approach “crabbed.”

In particular, the BLM’s alternatives fail to present the decision maker with an alternative that would directly address the increase of carbon emissions. Many authoritative analyses, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded that the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050 to limit the temperature rise to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Net zero carbon dioxide can be achieved by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal or offsets or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether.

To comply with NEPA, the BLM needs to add a “net zero” land-use planning alternative that would reduce or mitigate net carbon impacts from activities in the planning area to zero by 2050 or another date certain. This alternative would, by necessity, constrain fossil fuel development and provide for offsetting carbon reductions. A net zero alternative can be fully consistent with FLPMA.

Net zero land use planning is not unrealistic. Many countries, states, local governments, and private businesses have or will adopt net zero policies, and many development projects are being planned to achieve net zero now. Even very large carbon producing projects can achieve net zero emissions. For example, a master planned community in southern California that will build 21,000 homes and 11.5 million square feet of commercial and office space associated with 60,000 jobs was originally planned with little consideration of climate effects. Years of litigation, environmental analysis, and private initiative transformed the project into a net zero project by incorporating a combination of onsite and offsite measures.

To achieve net zero, the project will design homes and business to be energy efficient and use solar power, will install an electric vehicle charging station in every home and build 4,000 other electric vehicle charging stations, half in the community and half offsite. In addition, the project will provide subsidies for converting public transit buses to electric buses and creating an electric school bus program within the community. Offsite, the project will invest in carbon reducing measures in the surrounding area as well as elsewhere in California and other locations.

In these critical times for the planet, NEPA can play an important role in showing a path to net zero. Net zero alternatives for the BLM’s land-use plans and other activities would illuminate the role public lands plays in contributing to (and potentially avoiding) the adverse effects of global warming and identify changes needed to reach net zero for the proposed federal action. It might be too much to hope for that this administration will seize the opportunity to adopt a net zero alternative, but the analysis of what is needed will be informative and can be a blueprint for future administrations.



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