Interior Secretary Defends Fossil Fuels: 'You Can't Just Cut It Off Overnight'

"We are a nation that continues to be dependent on fossil fuels."

WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday defended fossil fuel development on public lands, as the Obama administration faces increasing pushback from its environmental base.

"We are a nation that continues to be dependent on fossil fuels," Jewell told reporters at an event Tuesday morning. "The president in his Climate Action Plan has said clearly that we need to move to a lower-carbon future. I am very proud to work for a president that has been as direct and forceful in his messaging as President Barack Obama."

Environmental groups have criticized the administration for advocating for action on climate change while also approving oil drilling in the Arctic and opening new areas off the East Coast for exploration.

Jewell said that her department, along with other parts of the federal government, has been working to reduce the United States' contribution of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

"But," she continued, "right now, we are sitting under lights that are likely powered by coal. Most of you probably burned some fossil fuels in one way or another to get here. There are millions of jobs around this country that are dependent on these industries. You can't just cut it off overnight and expect to have an economy that is, in fact, a leader in the world."

A rally outside the White House on Sept. 15 protested fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
A rally outside the White House on Sept. 15 protested fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
Kate Sheppard, The Huffington Post

Shortly after Jewell's remarks, a coalition of environmental groups held a small rally in front of the White House calling for an end to all fossil fuel development on public lands, including coal mining and oil and gas extraction. Groups involved in the rally included Physicians for Social Responsibility, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network and, which have joined with others to form the "Keep It in the Ground" campaign.

The campaign is “based on the notion that we are in a climate crisis,” said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica.

“Scientists have said that we need to keep 80 percent of all the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground” in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, he added.

But in her remarks Tuesday morning, Jewell indicated that ending development on public lands is a position the Obama administration wouldn't be adopting anytime soon.

"I think it oversimplifies a very complex situation to suggest that one could simply cut off leasing or drilling on public lands and solve the issue of climate change," she said. "We all have a responsibly to act and there are things we are doing and will continue to do to reduce the carbon footprint and put incentives in place for all of us to do a better job in how we use carbon."

Philip Lewis and Ruby Mellen contributed reporting.

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