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Bernie Sanders leads proposal to ban drilling on public land

"Our public lands should be managed for the public good, not for private profit," Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said.

By Ed Adamczyk and Doug G. Ware
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Bernie Sanders leads proposal to ban drilling on public land
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at right, attends a press conference where he and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced the Keep it in the Ground Act -- a proposal to fight climate change by outlawing drilling for gas and oil on federal land -- in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, November 4, 2015. With little chance of passage in the Republican House, the law is intended as a grassroots effort to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy, Sanders and Merkley said. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Two senators, one of whom is a candidate for president next year, introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at aggressively fighting climate change by outlawing the extraction of fossil fuels from federal land.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., launched the legislation -- called the Keep It in the Ground Act -- which seeks to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

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If passed, the law would end all new federal leases for oil, gas or coal extraction on publicly-owned lands and waterways.

"We are taking on ... some of the most powerful political forces in the world who are more concerned with short-term profits than the future of the planet," Sanders said in a statement. "I've got four kids, and I've got seven beautiful grandchildren. We have a moral responsibility to leave our kids a planet that is healthy and inhabitable."

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Sanders and Merkley are targeting what they view as greater importance being placed by lobbyists and lawmakers on money rather than the planet's environmental health.

"A major contribution to this [climate change] challenge would be stopping new fossil fuel leases on our public lands that lock in oil, gas and coal extraction for decades into the future," Merkley said. "Our public lands should be managed for the public good, not for private profit."

While lofty in its goal to hasten the transition to cleaner fuels, analysts say it has almost no chance of passage in a Republican House -- which has sought to expand energy development on federal land, not restrict it.

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The two senators said the bill is meant to provoke a grassroots awareness of solutions to climate change -- similar to the revolt against the Keystone XL oil pipeline and Royal Dutch Shell's plan to drill in the Arctic.

"This gives a rallying point for the grassroots to get in engaged, as they got engaged in the Keystone pipeline, as they got engaged on the Arctic," Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate change group 350.org, said.

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Experts believe that keeping large reserves of fossil fuel from being excavated could keep the Earth's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius -- the generally accepted threshold at which the worst global warming scenarios will start to occur.

"We have a moral responsibility to confront the reality of climate change, and the science is clear that the cost to our land, our communities and our climate of continued federal fossil fuel leasing is far too high," Sanders' fellow Vermont senator, Patrick Leahy, said of the legislation. "This is a commonsense step forward to addressing a global crisis that is at our doorstep."

Merkley, who has already taken steps to fight global warming since his re-election last year, wants to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels from being excavated.

Some lawmakers, though, have expressed skepticism of the bill's approach.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a proponent of fossil fuel development, has said she's concerned about climate change but believes keeping valuable resources, like oil, untapped in the ground might raise energy prices and deprive the government of billions of dollars from leases.

"Simply saying 'no' is not going to solve our energy needs," a Murkowski spokesman said.

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Murkowski last month spoke out against a recent decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to deny Shell Alaska's request to extend leases off Alaska's northern coast.

"This is a stunning, short-sighted move that betrays the Interior Department's commitments to Alaska and the best interests of our nation's long-term energy security," she said on Oct. 16.

The Keep It In The Ground Act is co-sponsored by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

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