Activists say ‘keep it in ground’; Jewell calls it simplistic

Inupiat rap artist and climate activist Allison Warden. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)
Inupiat rap artist and climate activist Allison Warden. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

Hundreds of environmental groups are uniting under a new banner to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. It’s called: “Keep it in the ground.” They’re asking President Obama to stop new petroleum leases on public lands. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the idea in a meeting with reporters today.

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For decades, Alaska’s congressional delegation has been clamoring for more oil and gas leases on federal land. Now, in a letter to Obama, more than 400 green groups are saying exactly the opposite, that the president should just stop fossil fuel lease sales.

Inupiat artist and activist Allison Warden of Fairbanks participated in a rally outside the White House this morning to deliver the message. Warden says she took part in an organizing meeting of the “keep it in the ground” alliance, in San Francisco.

“It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s a coalition of many organizations that is coming together on one message, which is no new extractions of fossil fuels, anywhere.”

Their letter to Obama says the hydrocarbons produced from federal lands and waters are a significant contributor to the nation’s carbon emissions.

Secretary Jewell, whose first career was as a petroleum engineer, told reporters the administration is dedicated to a lower-carbon future, by reducing energy use and fostering alternatives. But, she says, the nation is still dependent on oil, gas and coal.

“There are millions of jobs around the country that are dependent on this industries and you can’t just cut it off overnight,” she said.

She says her job, as head of the department that controls one-fifth of the U.S. landmass — and more than half of Alaska — is to ensure “thoughtful” regulation and development that is safe and responsible.

“I think it over-simplifies a very complex situation to suggest that one could simply cut off leasing or drilling on public lands and solve the issues of climate change,” Jewell said, speaking at a breakfast meeting organized by the Christian Science Monitor.

The “keep it in the ground” movement is built on the notion that to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to acceptable limits, a great deal of the world’s known petroleum reserves can never see the inside of a pipeline. A report published in a scientific journal recently found that burning all the world’s currently attainable fossil fuels would melt the Antarctic ice sheet, putting places like Florida and the East Coast under water.

Obama’s decision to allow Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea angered environmental groups. Jewell says the oversight of her department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is proceeding as planned in the Arctic.

“It has been on site, 24-by-7. It is holding Shell to the highest standards that really have ever been put in place,” she said.

Jewell says Shell voluntarily shut the operation down when a massive storm approached.

“I think they lost about five days because of that, but they are taking the right kinds of precautions to make sure that things are done safely there,” she said. “And our people are up there to validate those circumstances and if need be, asking for additional actions.”

Jewell was also asked about extending Shell’s Chukchi leases, which are set to expire in five years – long before Shell predicts it could begin production from the Chukchi. The secretary said she does have authority to extend them, but she didn’t say whether she would or not.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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