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This post is part of a series related to the March 12 Conference on Public Lands and Energy Transitions that was hosted by the George Washington University Law School's Environment and Energy Law Program.

Our vast public lands and waters are both a major contributor to the global climate crisis and a potential solution to the problem. The extraction and use of oil and gas resources from public lands and waters produce 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If the public lands were its own nation, it would be the fifth largest global emitter of GHGs.

The scale of this problem has been exacerbated by the current administration. Since the start of the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior – the primary federal agency charged by Congress with managing the use of public lands and waters – has used its statutory authority to open up a record number of acres for new fossil fuel development and to roll back Obama-era regulations designed to reduce methane emissions and other pollution associated with existing fossil fuel development. The current administration has thus used the public lands to boost the profits of major oil and gas companies at the expense of our health and environment.

At the same time, our public lands also represent one of the nation's most powerful tools to support a clean energy transition. Currently, nearly 10 percent of our electricity mix comes from wind and solar energy (up from only 4 percent in 2010), and that percentage is growing rapidly. But virtually all of the nation's installed capacity of wind and solar energy is located on private lands, not public lands. Of the 100,000 megawatts (MW) of installed wind energy capacity in the United States, only 3,000 MW is located on public lands. Likewise, of the 71,000 MW of installed solar capacity in the United States, only 6,000 MW is located on public lands. Thus, while our public lands play host to an ever-increasing amount of fossil fuel development, the same cannot be said for renewable energy.

This is despite the fact that the 640 million acres that make up the federal public estate host some of the nation's best wind and solar power potential, and offshore wind in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) could power the nation on its own many times over. But even under prior presidential administrations, development of these needed projects was extremely slow due to opposition from some environmental groups, as well as needed permits, rights-of-way, and the various requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and other longstanding environmental laws.

For good reason, environmental groups are wary of development on public lands, concerned about the potential for adverse impacts on open space, plant and animal species, and other natural resources. For its part, the Trump administration has made matters worse by dismantling land use planning processes put in place during the Obama administration that were designed to facilitate the siting and approval of renewable energy projects. But the need to ramp up renewables is critical, and I think my friends in the environmental movement will soon need to come to grips with the reality that solar and wind power generation on public lands and waters must viewed through a different lens. It's not simply another form of private industrial development that will enrich private corporations at the expense of precious natural resources. It's an effort to replace forms of electricity generation that are gradually choking the planet with ones that we can sustain, addressing the most significant environmental threat civilization has ever faced.

In addition to those factors, the Interior Department under President Trump has deliberately slow-walked permitting processes for renewable energy projects while accelerating those processes for fossil fuel projects.

Despite all that, there are ways to move forward. As a nation, we should not only limit and ultimately eliminate the use of public lands for fossil fuel development, but also focus on the public lands as a primary means to lead the way to a clean energy future. A path forward could rely on the following building blocks: