By Nichola Groom
(Reuters) -The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday proposed a new program that would allow it to offer leases of public land for conservation purposes, in much the same way as it currently offers acreage for drilling, mining, and grazing.
The Biden administration’s plan aims to protect landscapes from the impact of climate change and enable industries to offset their environmental footprints elsewhere, it said.
The move is consistent with the administration’s stated goal to put climate change at the center of agency decisions.
President Joe Biden has pledged to set the U.S. on a path to decarbonizing the economy by 2050 in part by preserving lands whose trees and other vegetation can absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that drives global warming.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management manages 10% of U.S. lands, or 245 million acres (991,500 square kilometers), primarily in western states. Uses range from grazing and recreation, to mining and energy development.
The Biden administration believes conservation is among the uses of federal acreage permitted under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).
On a call with reporters, Interior officials said the idea to establish “conservation leases” responds to requests by states and companies seeking ways to mitigate the environmental impact of development projects on public lands.
For instance, a solar energy project on public lands could compensate for the loss of wildlife habitat by restoring habitat in another area. Leases could also be used to restore migration corridors for big game or to generate tradable offsets for carbon markets by preserving forests.
Most major environmental groups praised the action by BLM for prioritizing conservation.
“The time is ripe for BLM to strengthen its commitment to conservation and bring its multiple use mandate into the 21st century,” Helen O’Shea, who works on conservation issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Asked how the rules would impact Interior’s oil and gas leasing program, an agency official said the proposal would ensure that current activities on public lands could continue for decades to come.
Interior’s leasing programs for oil, gas and mining add billions of dollars in revenue to federal coffers every year. The agency said conservation leases would also generate revenue.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance, said conservation leases were not found in FLPMA and that the rule would “stretch the boundaries of the law.”
BLM will accept public comments on the proposal for 75 days.