Trump, Clinton, and the Fate of Fossil Fuels on Public Lands

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By Rachel Leven

Oct. 24 — The stakes couldn’t be higher for energy production on federal lands Nov. 8—if you believe what the presidential candidates say.

Democrat Hillary Clinton would expand a current moratorium on leasing public lands for coal production to include oil and gas as well.

Republican Donald Trump would eliminate the coal related-leasing pause altogether.

“It’s one of the starkest differences between the two candidates,” Chris Warren, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg BNA.

But the reality of what the Nov. 8 general election could mean for fossil fuel production on public lands may not be so straightforward.

John Cossa, an associate at Beveridge & Diamond PC in Washington, D.C., who previously served as an attorney-adviser at the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor, said Clinton’s promise to expand the moratorium on leasing public lands could be “difficult.”

And environmentalist Jeremy Nichols at WildEarth Guardians in Golden, Colo., said he isn’t clear on the specifics of where either candidate stands.

The Statements

The Interior Department implemented a federal coal leasing moratorium in January as the agency re-evaluates the environmental impact of its coal program. That included several exemptions, including for metallurgical coal leases and emergency leasing. The leasing moratorium wasn’t expected to immediately affect coal production, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at the time.

On the heels of this decision, Clinton was asked by 350 Action in February whether she would end the extraction of coal, oil and gas on federal lands. She responded that she wants to impose a moratorium on federal land leasing for coal, oil and gas “because there are legal issues you have to go through.”

Trump, meanwhile, has released numerous economic and energy-related plans touting an end to the coal-related federal lands leasing moratorium and pledging to open up more land for fossil fuel extraction.

These would support very different energy futures. Nichols sees an expanded moratorium limiting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel extraction to benefit the environment now and in the future. Warren sees such a moratorium expansion as limiting economic growth from fossil fuels.

Do You Believe It?

Nichols calls the contrast in the candidates “a big deal,” but he said it is hard to determine where the candidates specifically stand. It is clear that Trump would loosen energy restrictions in some respect, and that Clinton would move to address climate change in some form, he said. But “it is hard to know the contours.”

“Certainly, Clinton gives us more hope than Trump,” Nichols said, adding that his group is still focused on “emboldening” President Barack Obama before he leaves office in January. After Obama, he said: “There’s nobody who’s going to come in and automatically give us what we want.”

And Cossa told Bloomberg BNA that legally there could be reason to be skeptical of Clinton’s oil and gas promise.

The Mineral Leasing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act actually require Interior to lease for oil and gas, Cossa said. That makes a “blanket moratorium” for future oil and gas related public lands leasing more difficult, he said.

Oil, Gas Statutes Unique.

However, the Interior secretary does have “wide discretion in deciding how much to lease” or whether to lease land in a given area, Cossa said.

Cossa pointed to the regulations that complement that leasing as equally important to whether fossil fuel extraction will be able to continue, such as pipeline right-of-way requirements.

On the other hand, Trump’s promise to rescind the January 2016 secretarial order that put the coal-related public lands leasing pause in place would be relatively easy to execute administratively because “secretarial orders can be defeated by other secretarial orders,” Cossa said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington, D.C., at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

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