How the Keep it in the Ground movement came to be

A look back at a decade of coverage of anti-fossil fuel protests.


Protests against fossil fuel development began about a decade ago and High Country News has been covering them ever since.

In the waning years of George W. Bush's presidency, environmental groups fought auctions of public lands for oil and gas extraction — a reaction to Bush's emphasis on throwing open those lands for drilling. We first wrote about anti-fossil fuel extraction protests in 2008 as a new but not necessarily effective tactic; most green groups stayed focused on more traditional issues like protecting wildlands and cleaning up dirty air. 

Protestors at PR Springs, Utah.
Tar Sands Resistance

But in the past few years, it’s become apparent that anti-extraction protests are part of the new climate movement. The urgency induced by the first relocations of climate refugees, heavy flooding, hot weather and devastating wildfires has also buoyed the Keep it in the Ground movement, which is pushing to stop mining of the world's remaining fossil fuels. Protestors now regularly appear at oil and gas lease auctions, where rights to drill on public land are sold off to the highest bidder; famed Western writer Terry Tempest Williams bought up leases with the intention of taking them out of production. The effectiveness of the “necessity defense,” in essence “climate change made me do it,” went on trial in Washington this spring as five climate protestors appeared in court for blocking oil trails. And the anti-fossil fuel movement about a half inch of sea level rise per year or about 30 percent of total rise observed since 2003. Steam from parallel movements for tribal sovereignty and racial and economic equity; as Sarah Tory wrote in 'Dispatch from Blockadia,' it's no longer just traditional environmental organizations fighting to halt pipelines, drilling and terminals  tribes, for example, have joined pipeline protests in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the next three days, we’ll be covering this new wave of climate action with stories on how anti-fossil-fuel protests have changed the face of leasing auctions, divided communities and stopped export terminals in their tracks. In the meantime, check out a decade of HCN's coverage of this growing movement:


Protests against drilling on public lands are escalating

“‘This is an escalation of people moving to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and a message that leasing and these auctions need to end,’ said Jason Schwartz, an organizer with Greenpeace.”

In Washington, activists and the ‘necessity defense’ on trial

“In mid-January, a standing-room-only crowd packed a county courtroom near Seattle for a case so minor it normally would not have gone to trial. The five defendants were each charged with two misdemeanors: trespass and obstructing a train. All admitted to the crimes but pleaded ‘not guilty.’

Their defense, in simplified terms, was ‘climate change made me do it.’”

Dispatch from Blockadia

“By the end of November, nearly a thousand people had occupied the mountain, effectively blocking any construction and ultimately forcing Kinder Morgan to abandon its plans.

The Burnaby Mountain protest was part of a larger, hard-to-define grassroots movement its supporters call ‘Blockadia,’ in which local communities — from rural to urban — are uniting to halt oil and gas development. As support grows for curbing carbon emissions, Blockadia is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for activists — and a massive headache to industry.”


The campaign against coal

“There’s a clear logic to this approach: If you don’t want carbon in the air, leave the raw materials that produce it in the ground. Yet environmentalists and government agencies have so long ignored this supply-side strategy that it is considered downright radical, in the everyday sense of the word as well as its literal meaning — that is, getting at the root of the problem. For decades, environmentalists have tried to rid the air of pollution caused by fossil fuels, but they’ve always targeted combustion, working to clean up exhaust pipes or smokestacks, rather than shutting down oilfields or coal mines. The Sierra Club’s ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign, for instance, figures it accomplishes more by closing coal-fired power plants. …

But recently, the battle against climate change has moved up the production chain.”

The unusual occupation at Utah’s Book Cliffs

“The activists called their camp a ‘permanent protest vigil,’ its purpose to monitor and impede construction of what could become the first tar sands mine in the U.S. They have stood in front of and locked themselves to heavy machinery. Once, they dressed up as chipmunks and chased road graders around a construction site. At least one woman trespassed regularly into the mine’s test pit, to see if there was anything worrisome worth documenting.”


Faces of the grassroots climate movement: rowdy and rowdier

“After all, the politer approaches to solving the climate crisis, the attempts by big environmental groups to work inside the halls of Congress, to compromise, and to wield science to compel action, had failed. It was time, the protesters believed, to confront the problem at its source – carbon spewing projects like this one – and to do so loudly.”


Sierra Club fights Keystone XL with civil disobedience

“Civil disobedience comes in many forms. One involves physically standing in the path of destruction  between the whale and a harpoon, for instance  ‘the classic Greenpeace action,’ says Celia Alario, a communications consultant specializing in grassroots groups that employ such tactics. Another is personal, like Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes that would fund a war he opposed.

The participants in the Washington, D.C., protests this month are intervening at the ‘point of decision,’ Alario explains, deliberately trespassing and saying, ‘I will break this law, because a greater law is being broken.’”


Crude combat

“Will this time be any different? Maybe. The permitting decision hinges on whether the State Department deems the project in the ‘national interest,’ but there are no set criteria for making that call. ‘Every pipeline is a whole new game,’ says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of international programs for NRDC.”


The leasing protest game

“Last August, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated a remarkable victory: At the Partnership's request, the Bureau of Land Management in Utah pulled 49,000 acres slated for oil and gas leasing from an upcoming auction.

‘Every single parcel we protested was removed,’ says Joel Webster, who wrote the group's formal protest.”

Bonus: Today's “Keep it in the Ground” movement in some ways echoes the tactics and organizing strategy of the logging protests of the 1980s and 1990s, as logging’s decline opened the door for landmark battles over where and how forests across the West could be cut. Then, as now, the federal agencies tasked with balancing competing and often incompatible interests. Read these stories from that era.

A "bizarre" alliance fights logging

Last line of defense

Earth First! The Next Generation

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