On Tuesday, the Trump administration ordered a skeleton crew of federal employees back to work during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Alongside the tens of thousands of workers needed to maintain food safety standards and issue tax refunds, the White House included a small batch of staffers at the U.S. Department of the Interior. These Interior officials, who process the sale of oil drilling rights, will ensure Big Oil gets its easy feast of public lands even with the rest of the government ground to a halt.
The episode provides the perfect illustration of one overlooked reality of the climate crisis: The Interior is the federal engine of the fossil-fuel economy, and there’s no way to address climate change without overhauling the department.
The Interior is the nation’s largest land manager and oversees about one fifth of the United States. The public domain under its jurisdiction harbors some of the largest coal, oil and natural gas fields in the world. The officials within the Interior are responsible for the issuance of mineral leases on these public lands and territories. That has historically meant opening up America’s resources for rapid exploitation. The Interior, even by its own account, has leased and sold unimaginable acreages to private companies for slack terms and at bargain-basement prices.
One hundred and seventy years of preparing an easy feast for extractive industries has certainly taken its toll on the environment. The United States Geological Survey recently conducted a study that found the public lands now contribute to one quarter of all U.S. carbon emissions (not to mention sizeable portions of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide). The first-of-its-kind report, commissioned under the Obama administration and buried by the Trump administration late last year, concluded that coal-fired power plants and coal mines – even abandoned ones that continue to release methane for years – represent the largest share of these emissions. These operations would never have existed without the Interior’s freewheeling policies.