Addressing Climate Change without Legislation

Addressing Climate Change Without Legislation

How the department of the interior can use its existing legal authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase clean energy use

By Romany Webb and Steven Weissman
University of California, Berkeley
School of Law
June 2014

  • Click here for the report (PDF file)



New Report: Interior Department Can Act on Existing Law to Reduce Carbon Emissions

Contact:  Susan Gluss, 510-642-6936


Berkeley, CA - June 3, 2014 - A new report released today calls on the U.S. Department of the Interior to mitigate the impact of climate change by enacting laws already on the books. The report, Addressing Climate Change Without Legislation, details steps the agency can take under existing law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase clean energy use.

The report is a joint project of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and the Berkeley Energy & Climate Institute.

"Existing laws offer the Interior Department a chance to reduce emissions that cause climate change and protect the environment," said Steven Weissman, report co-author and director of the law school's energy program. "The agency can do more to implement those laws above and beyond its current climate change strategy. Policy makers are bound by their own imaginations more than by statutory limits."

Weissman, a lecturer affiliated with the law school’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, stressed the need for action now. In the report, he and co-author Romany Webb ’13 cite numerous studies linking greenhouse gas emissions to extreme weather patterns, melting glaciers, and sea level rise. The resulting floods, tornados, and prolonged droughts have already caused severe environmental and economic damage.

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif) agreed that regulators needed to address the void left by Congress.

"If Congress will not act to address climate change, President Obama must use existing legal authorities to do so.  Understanding the scope of executive authorities is an important project, and Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment is a leader in this effort."

The report cites numerous laws that empower the agency, including the Mineral Leasing Act, Endangered Species Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

"The Interior Department has the tools it needs, but it can get stuck," Webb said. “In 2009, the agency announced plans to limit methane gas releases from oil and gas wells on federal lands. Yet draft rules still haven’t been circulated, despite agency support of the project. These sorts of programs need to be accelerated."

The report comes just as President Obama has released draft rules to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent. The regulation bolsters the president’s Climate Action Plan, released one year ago, which directs federal agencies to adopt various mitigation strategies.

Weissman said the Interior Department could broaden its efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change—using the report as a guide.

"It’s like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “ he said, ‘You’ve had the power all along. Just click your heels."

The study recommends two dozen steps the agency could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, develop renewable sources of energy, and increase carbon sequestration. The suggestions range from expanding hydroelectric generation at existing dams, to using plants and soil to absorb and store atmospheric carbon.

The report's recommendations apply to the Interior Department's nine bureaus—including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The recommendations include:

  • limiting greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas wells, pipelines, and other facilities;
  • enhancing carbon storage by improving the agency’s land management and allowing private parties to undertake sequestration on federal lands;
  • supporting additional renewable power production by reducing the rents and other fees producers must pay to use public lands;
  • working with other federal agencies to streamline the permitting process for transmission projects;
  • allowing private or public construction of new hydroelectric power plants on existing federal dams and other waterway structures; and
  • restricting activities that emit greenhouse gases to avoid adverse impacts on threatened and endangered species.

The UC Berkeley study is the first in a series of reports designed to analyze steps federal agencies can take to mitigate climate change under existing laws. Subsequent reports will focus on the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

For more info about Addressing Climate Change Without Legislation, contact Steven Weissman, 510-642-0508; or Romany Webb