Polar bear


Fossil fuels — coal, petroleum, and natural gas — are our main sources of energy, producing the vast majority of fuel, electricity, and heat used by people across the globe. In 2005 a whopping 86 percent of energy used worldwide came from fossil fuel combustion, and right now in the United States, the number isn’t much lower at about 85 percent. Unfortunately fossil fuels are also the primary culprit behind climate change. In the United States, they’re to blame for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — and 98 percent of CO2 emissions alone. And while natural processes can absorb some of this CO2, an estimated 4.1 billion metric tons of it is added to our atmosphere each year. That number will rise dramatically if we don’t check ourselves.

Still, the Bush administration continued to tout fossil fuels over all other energy sources, supporting ridiculously low fuel economy standards, more oil drilling, new natural gas pipelines, oil shale development, coal-fired power plants and coal mining, and other projects that drive climate change and harm species and habitat. To reverse this trend, besides opposing unsustainable energy production — while supporting renewable energy that doesn’t hurt the climate or species — the Center has made use of the legal tools at hand to force the administration and energy industry to keep climate change on the agenda. By showing that existing laws already call for limits on greenhouse gas emissions, monitoring and mitigation for greenhouse gas-spewing energy projects, and the use of alternative fuel sources and technologies, the Center’s Climate Law Institute aims to make sure that addressing climate change becomes a standard part of environmental analysis for all things energy.


Because of its high carbon content, coal emits more CO2 than any other fossil fuel when it’s burned. It’s also the main source of fuel for electricity worldwide, and in the United States it accounts for 83 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the electric power sector. It makes sense, then, that coal combustion worldwide is the number-one contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Making matters worse, coal mining produces methane, a greenhouse gas with a climate change potential 25 times greater than that of CO2 on a 100-year timeline.

Emissions from coal-fired power plants represent one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases (sharing the top spot with vehicle emissions). Happily, existing laws including the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and others already regulate those emissions if only they were enforced; and we’re working hard to enforce them. After the Environmental Protection Agency illegally approved a permit for a massive proposed coal-fired power plant in New Mexico without complying with the Endangered Species Act, in September 2008 the Center appealed the approval — and in spring 2009, the agency requested the voluntary rejection of the permit. In January 2009, we filed an appeal to stop the White Pine project, a proposed coal-fired power plant in Nevada that would be one of the largest and most heavily polluting coal plants in the western United States. The same year, in response to a petition by the Center and allies, Kentucky’s controversial TVA “Paradise” coal-fired power plant was sent back to the drawing board to redo its operating permit.


Burning petroleum emits about three-fourths as much CO2 as burning coal, and thanks to oil’s role as the established fuel for transportation globally, it’s neck-and-neck with coal in the race to become the leading greenhouse gas producer. On top of the enormous amounts of CO2 churned out when petroleum is burned as gas by cars and trucks, hundreds of millions of tons of the pollutant are emitted in the oil-refining process. And before oil even hits the plants, oil exploration and drilling can have a devastating effect on imperiled species, including the ribbon seal, the California condor — and, of course, the polar bear.

Nontraditionally produced petroleum products, like oil extracted from oil shale and tar sands, can have lifecycle emissions even worse than coal. Shale mining is the dirtiest method of producing energy, requiring many energy-intensive steps, complex extraction and production methods, and a lot of waste. Compared to crude oil, every barrel of shale oil sends 50 percent more CO2 into the atmosphere, and oil shale development requires more land than conventional oil and more water than farming in the desert. Tar sands development is also dirty and wasteful: About two tons of tar sands and several barrels of water are required to produce a single barrel of oil, and the mining and extraction processes require large amounts of energy and emit far more greenhouse gases than the conventional oil production method. There’s been no significant production of U.S. oil shale for at least 30 years — for a good reason: It just doesn’t make sense. Our world’s climate and our nation’s lands simply can’t afford oil shale and tar sands development in the United States.

The Center has confronted the oil and gas industry through a variety of approaches, from pushing for full enforcement of laws to limiting vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions to directly challenging oil development in endangered species habitat. We’re also actively opposing oil shale and tar sands development by submitting comments, generating media, and rallying public support for a “no action” alternative to the Bureau of Land Management’s commercial oil shale and tar sands leasing program, proposed for 2 million acres of public lands in the American West.


Natural gas, which in general emits about half the CO2 of coal when burned, is often dubbed the “cleanest” of the fossil fuel triumvirate. However, in absolute terms it’s still a huge contributor to climate change-causing emissions, and its contribution is expected to grow.

The production of liquefied natural gas, or LNG — natural gas that’s been “supercooled” and converted to liquid for ease of storage or transport — in fact does extreme damage to our climate. Because of the tremendous energy required to liquefy, transport, and “regassify” LNG, LNG processing from just one plant can generate more than 24 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, equal to the annual greenhouse gas pollution from about 4.4 million cars; researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have concluded that LNG can actually produce almost as much greenhouse gas pollution as coal. Making matters worse, tanker ship traffic and facilities for LNG threaten directly harm wildlife, threatening delicate marine and estuarine species — from endangered whales to threatened salmon — as well as land-dwelling species, including the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly, whose last habitat near Los Angeles is jeopardized by pipelines from a proposed LNG facility called OceanWay.

The Center has taken an active stance against liquefied natural gas production, stepping in to fight destructive LNG projects from Los Angeles’s OceanWay to an abandoned Chevron proposal for a Baja California LNG terminal that would have devastated habitat for endangered seabirds. We’ve also intervened to force the California Energy Commission to consider greenhouse gas emissions for the Carlsbad Energy Center Project, a proposed power plant for San Diego County that would rely on liquefied natural gas as a fossil fuel.

Polar bear photo via Pixabay.