You most likely heard about that bizarre militia standoff in Oregon at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. But did you find it hard to fathom what the two sides were even fighting for, and what the arguments were on either side?

It turns out that when you dig into the issues, it’s a time-tested battle over land resources in the American West and who has the right to use and manage them. And believe it or not, this battle also turns out to have a profound impact on the US energy ecosystem and America’s ability to fight climate change.

The backstory

See, the federal government has to balance the interests of the people who interact with public lands according the multiple use doctrine whereby grazing, mining, energy development, and recreation all have claim to be present. Unless the land has been designated a Wilderness Area, in which case no permanent roads or commerce can be developed, with the exception of concessionaire stands for recreational users.

This exception for one group, recreationists, doesn’t always sit well with other groups like ranchers, miners, and energy developers who historically enjoyed pretty much free reign to take what they pleased (at least before the environmentalists came along).

The recent militia standoff in Oregon is a prime example of this friction. There, an armed group calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in protest of a federal judgment and five-year prison sentence against ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands adjacent to their property, near the refuge.

In federal court, a jury was convinced that the fire was set in order to cover up illegal deer hunting on public lands regulated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

What about Wyoming?

Full disclosure: I grew up in Wyoming, the daughter of a career BLM employee. My dad worked mainly as a recreation planner, which entailed projects like developing the world-famous Slick Rock bike trail in Moab, Utah, marking the Mormon Trail in Wyoming, and establishing campgrounds and visitors centers. He also recommended tracts of land to Congress to be preserved as Wilderness Areas, using ecosystems to set the boundaries instead of map coordinates.

Growing up, my dad would sometimes jokingly refer to his employer as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” in explaining the culture clashes that exist within the BLM itself due to the challenge of managing public lands for multiple—and often conflicting—use.

Today, Wyoming just happens to be the largest coal producer in the US by far and home to nine of 10 active mines in the US. The scale of its open strip mines is the biggest in the world and most of the land they are situated on is public and federally managed by the BLM.

From its share of the leasing royalties, Wyoming received $555 million in 2014 (the most recent data available)—a significant number for the least populated state in the nation.

But recently, the federal government announced a moratorium on new coal leases, which is a sign that business as usual in energy development on public lands is being disrupted in Wyoming and other Western fossil fuel-producing states.

Why halt coal on public land, you ask? The US federal government has mandated to develop publicly owned lands in the West not only for “fair return” to the taxpayer, but also according to the principle of “sustained yield”.

This principle was adopted in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1932 after the realization that overgrazing and drought—effects from two dominant industries of the era making use of public lands for private profit—had seriously degraded America’s public lands.

Now, the energy industry is the dominant industry user and, in the case of fossil fuels, also the dominant emitter, as science (paid for with tax dollars) has shown.

Looking south over the world's largest coal mine, the Black Thunder Mine in the Powder River Basin, 2012. Ecoflight.

Looking south over the world’s largest coal mine, the Black Thunder Mine in the Powder River Basin, 2012. Ecoflight.

A renewable change is gonna come

I heard a surprising statistic at the Cleantech Forum I attended recently: In the last three years, coal stocks have lost 99 percent of their value. Whoa. Can they keep their one percent equity given the moratorium on new mineral leases for mining coal on public lands? After all, that’s where 40 percent of coal production in the US comes from.

The goal of the federal moratorium is to allow the US government time to review its energy development policy in light of the fair value it is supposed to return to taxpayers. The recent climate agreements at COP21 in Paris also necessitate a reconsideration of how emissions from coal production relate to national goals for drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.

It seems that market forces and government policy are aligning to transform business as usual in energy development.

For people who work in the coal industry or depend on the industries’ dollars, this is not a welcome move by the US federal government, not to mention the stock market. In my personal opinion, though, these developments couldn’t have come sooner for citizens of planet Earth, given that the social costs of coal amount to $37 per metric ton of CO2 equivalent—greenhouse gasses—and the industry is the largest contributor to climate change.

Coal is responsible for 3/4ths of US greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector, which in turn is responsible for almost a third of the country’s total emissions, 2,100 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Again, the social costs are enormous.

As an alternative to coal, renewable energy development on federal public lands accounts for less than one percent of BLM receipts (as of 2014, the latest data available) from rents paid for rights of way. But this number will grow; it’s only as of 2009 that renewable energy developments really got started on public lands.

Considered these developments together: The US pledge at COP21 to lower emissions by 26 – 28 percent by 2025, the federal moratorium on new coal leases, and the falling cliff trajectory of fossil fuel’s market capitalization.

My assessment? There has never been a better time to be optimistic about a shared clean energy future.

This sense of opportunity was palpable at the Cleantech Forum, where the focus wasn’t on the specifics of energy development on public lands but on raw market opportunity in the larger cleantech sector.

As SunPower’s CEO stated there, the solar industry alone has a $1 Billion total addressable market today and in the state of California it now employs more people than do the three large investor-owned utilities combined. The group of cleantech VCs, fund managers, and startups present at the Forum believe this upward trajectory is only just picking up steam.

But back to the land. With business opportunities shining bright in the renewable energy sector, the future of energy development on public lands in the American West holds much promise.

I firmly believe that our future societies will be healthier and still able to enjoy the iconic public lands in the American West and elsewhere if we can manage to work in our common interest to develop them for a true sustained yield.

If managing for recreational users represents an annoyance to business as usual on public lands, imagine the disruption that will come from a shift to clean energy development. Personally, I can’t wait.


Get in touch or follow swissnex San Francisco’s sustainability guru Laura Erickson for energy-related programs and opportunities.

Photo: Wind Energy, Southern California by Moonjazz, Public Domain via Flickr