Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is feeling the burn — of climate change. But maybe he’s feeling the Bern, too. Merkley teamed up with presidential candidate and fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders on Nov. 4 to introduce new climate change legislation. The “Keep It In the Ground Act” would end all new federal leases for oil, gas or coal extraction on public lands and waters.
According to information from Merkley’s office, the bill would stop new leases and end nonproducing leases for offshore drilling in the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico; stop new and end nonproducing coal, oil, gas, oil shale and tar sands leases on all federal lands; and prohibit offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic.
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Despite the Obama administration’s heightened focus on climate change — including nixing the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline — naysayers have decreed that Merkley’s bill will go nowhere in the current congressional climate.
Merkley tells EW that when it comes to dealing with a warming planet, while the issue is urgent, legislation such as this bill lays out a longer vision that allows grassroots organizations to work on the issue outside of the Capitol building and then bring that rallying point back inside to members of Congress. He gives the example of employment nondiscrimination legislation that was first brought up by President Kennedy but not passed until 2013.
Merkley introduced the bill; Sanders is a cosponsor. “We are taking on the Koch brothers and some of the most powerful political forces in the world who are more concerned with short-term profits than the future of the planet,” Sanders said at a recent press conference on the Keep It In the Ground Act. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is also a cosponsor of the bill.
According to Merkley, we need to leave 80 percent of our oil, gas and coal in the ground. He says we have conservation and clean energy technologies to replace the burning of fossil fuels, but need the political will to act.
Sanders isn’t the only high-profile backer of Merkley’s legislation. Climate change activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben told reporters on a conference call with Merkley on the bill, “These public lands are one of the easiest places for us to control the flow of carbon into the atmosphere.”
Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild says the bill is “a signal to big oil and coal that despite the millions of dollars they spend every year on lobbying and congressional elections, the writing is on the wall for fossil fuels.”
But, Pedery adds, closer to home, “Ending clear-cutting and restoring old-growth forests are the biggest steps Oregon can take to combat climate change.”
And while the conservation group applauds Merkley “for taking a strong stand against oil and gas drilling on public lands,” Oregon Wild points out that Oregon doesn’t have much fossil fuel extraction. We do have a lot of clearcutting, so “it would be great to see him take a similar stand on protecting forests here at home.”
Merkley says that when it comes to Oregon’s forests, the burning of fossil fuels is a local issue, pointing to climate-change-induced bark beetle infestations and increased forest fires. “Anyone concerned about the forests should also be concerned about burning fossil fuels,” he says.
Merkley says he was told of climate modeling that shows Western forests being wiped out by the turn of the century.
According to information on Sanders’ Senate website, 90 percent of fossil carbon on federal lands remains unreleased. And if we burned all the fossil fuels on those lands, we would burn up 50 percent of the global carbon budget. Sanders says, “We have a moral responsibility to leave our kids a planet that is healthy and inhabitable.”
Merkley tells EW that as the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels, workers in the fossil fuel industry should still be able to get jobs. He says Sanders will be introducing a bill to protect oil, gas and coal workers by providing educational opportunities and job training, calling their legislation both “green” and “blue.”
COP21, the United Nations Summit on Climate Change, kicks off in France on Nov. 30 and runs though Dec. 11.