Oil and gas extraction on public lands and waters is responsible for twenty percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If American public lands were their own country, they would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. As of 2020, only twenty percent of total U.S. electricity generation came from renewable energy sources. While renewable energy development on public lands has increased, most renewable energy comes from private lands. However, public lands contain immense renewable energy potential; for example, it is estimated that half of this country’s geothermal resources are found on public lands. Despite underutilized renewable energy potential on public lands, wind and solar development is multiplying. Moreover, thanks to rapid technological advancements and government incentives, renewable energy is now cost-competitive with fossil fuels and continues to decrease— new wind and solar power plants are often less expensive than new coal and natural gas power plants.
The diffuse public benefits of renewables are irrefutable. Unfortunately, the case for renewable energy (“RE”) development on public lands must contend with the regulatory burdens of longstanding environmental laws such as NEPA and ESA, state and local “NIMBYism”, and environmental groups concerned about adverse impacts to open space, plant and animal species, and hunting and other recreational uses. Despite these criticisms, the current statutory framework amply supports renewable energy development on federal public lands and should be prioritized to meet the Biden Administration’s and Congress’ ambitious renewable energy goals.
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