WASHINGTON -- Two Senators are floating ambitious legislation to stop the government from issuing new leases on public land for fossil fuel extraction.
The venture, pushed by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is a gamble that would be met with fierce opposition from Republicans. Merkley said the goal of the bill is to combat climate change and help prevent an increase in the global temperature, which could lead to catastrophic damage.
Scientists have calculated that to keep the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius, 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves worldwide need to stay in the ground.
The bill would block new leases and end non-producing leases for fossil fuels -- such as coal, oil, gas, oil shale and oil sands -- on federal land and for offshore drilling in the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. It would also completely prohibit offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
“This is a rallying point for the grassroots to get engaged as they got engaged in the Keystone XL pipeline, as they got engaged in the Arctic,” Merkley told reporters ahead of the bill’s release.
The Senate duo held a rally Wednesday just outside of the Capitol and steps away from the Senate. Joined by environmental activists and organizations like the Sierra Club and 350.org, Merkley and Sanders said they hoped their bill would draw more attention to climate change.
Sanders, a 2016 presidential contender, took jabs at Republicans running for president over the issue. A majority of the Republican candidates say they don’t believe the science behind climate change, denying that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, contribute to global warming.
“What I say to my Republican colleagues who reject the science, who refuse to work with us to aggressively transform our energy system: I say, worry less about your campaign contributions, worry more about your children and your grandchildren,” Sanders said.
Sanders jumped at the chance to chime in on Hillary Clinton’s environmental policies as well. Asked if Clinton’s climate policies could be considered robust without supporting an effort to keep all fossil fuels in the ground, Sanders said that to be "serious about climate change, we can't just talk the talk."
“I can’t speak to Hillary Clinton, but I would hope that Hillary Clinton would join Jeff Merkley and myself on this issue,” Sanders said. "The point is here on federal land, in my view, in Sen. Merkley’s view, we should not be in the future extracting oil and coal and gas from that land. At the same time as we are trying to combat climate change -- it just makes no sense at all.”
Clinton, like Sanders, considers climate change a national security threats, and supports the actions President Barack Obama has taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill is far from welcoming to such measures. Republican leaders in the Senate have vowed to use every tool at their disposal to rein in the administration’s regulations on carbon pollution from power plants, and have denounced the president’s work with other nations leading up to a United Nations meeting in Paris on climate change. There, nearly 200 countries will try to finalize an agreement committing each of them to emissions reduction targets for the first time.
Sanders said Obama should "absolutely" deny TransCanada’s permit for the Keystone XL pipeline ahead of the Paris talks as a show of resolve.
Merkley hopes the bill will foster conversations among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, among the public and during the 2016 election cycle. Holding no illusions about the bill’s future, however, he admitted that he and Sanders don’t expect Republican leaders on the energy committees in both chambers to markup or hold a hearing on the issue.
“We don’t expect legislative action under current leaders in both the House and Senate,” Merkley said. He quickly added that while his bill would have been an “over-the-horizon reach” a few years ago, now it’s not.
Republicans have criticized such legislation in the past, arguing it would jack up electricity costs and leave thousands of workers without jobs. Addressing that concern, Sanders said he and Merkley also plan to introduce legislation to protect oil, gas and coal workers by providing educational opportunities and job training.
“We have the moral responsibility to make sure that as we transition away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy, these workers are protected,” Sanders said.