U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks at the White House Conservation In Action Summit at the U.S. Interior Department on March 21, 2023 in Washington, DC.
The Biden administration this week proposed a new rule that would allow the Interior Department to lease public lands for conservation, a process similar to how the agency delivers leases for oil and gas development and mining projects.
The Interior on Thursday said establishing conservation leases would help states and companies offset the environmental impact of their development plans. The leases would enable interested organizations to conduct restoration or mitigation activities to protect landscapes from the effects of climate change.
The Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in a dozen western states. Oil and gas development is allowed on 90% of BLM-managed lands.
The proposal comes after the Interior earlier this month approved a major and controversial oil drilling plan in Alaska, known as Willow, which angered environmental groups who said the plan undermines the Biden administration's pledge to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
The Biden administration has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal that includes conserving and restoring lands critical for carbon sequestration.
Issuing conservation leases would generate revenue and make landscapes more resilient to climate change, Interior officials said. For example, the leases could be used to accelerate the restoration of big game migration corridors or establish carbon markets.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a statement said the country's public lands are under mounting pressure amid unprecedented climate-related disasters like wildfires and drought.
"It is our responsibility to use the best tools available to restore wildlife habitat, plan for smart development and conserve the most important places for the benefit of the generations to come," Haaland said.
Some environmental groups praised the agency's proposed rule to prioritize conservation and said that conservation leases could fundamentally transform the way the BLM approaches land management.
"We hope that this process leads to a new BLM that puts the needs of the climate and species ahead of profits for the oil and gas industry," said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program.
Helen O'Shea, director of the Protected Areas Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that "the time is ripe for BLM to strengthen its commitment to conservation and bring its multiple use mandate into the 21st century."
"We appreciate the meaningful conservation measures in this new rule that have the promise to advance biodiversity, climate resilience and equity on our public lands," O'Shea said.
The BLM is accepting public comments on the proposed rule for 75 days.
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