Protests against drilling on public lands are escalating

In Colorado, another showdown at a government auction for oil and gas leases.


The movement to halt oil and gas drilling on public lands kicked into higher gear on May 12, as more than 250 protestors tried to shut down a government oil and gas lease sale at a Denver Holiday Inn. The rally, which overtook the hotel parking lot and then occupied the lobby, was the latest and largest to target Western lease auctions held by the Bureau of Land Management in recent months.

“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, which orchestrated the protest with Rainforest Action Network and a coalition of other groups.

Protestors included supporters of climate and environmental groups from several Western states. “Every time we do this, it gets bigger,” said A.J. Buhay, a protestor from Nevada.

The Keep It in the Ground movement staged rallies in Salt Lake City and Reno in February and March, respectively, at lease sales by the BLM, which manages 250 million surface acres and 700 million subsurface mineral acres. In Salt Lake, protestors entered the auction room and disrupted the sales before peacefully exiting. The attention toward lease sales has grown since 2008 when activist Tim DeChristopher successfully bid on 14 parcels for $1.8 million without intent to pay for the leases. DeChristopher eventually served 21 months in prison.

The Denver action was the biggest yet, with organizers and protestors intent on shutting down the entire auction. Activists took over the hotel parking lot, blocked the hotel’s entrance and lobby, and spent more than an hour chanting and singing. A line of local police officers kept protestors from moving past the lobby to the auction room while fellow officials monitored other hotel entrances.

BLM lease sales are typically small and quiet gatherings, and the uptick in protest activity has left the agency scrambling to manage the attention. Industry officials and supporters in Congress have begun calling for and considering online auctions to eliminate the disruptions.

The decision to hold the latest auction at a Holiday Inn instead of at a government office was meant to accommodate the ramped-up turnout at these events, said Courtney Whiteman, a BLM spokeswoman. Initially, agency officials announced they would allow up to 50 non-bidders into the lease sale, but concerns that protestors would overrun the proceedings and exceed legal room capacity led them to restrict attendance at the auction. Protest organizers claim that the location shift to private property makes it easier to call in police for trespassing and to stifle rallies.

The federal government suspended coal leasing on public lands in January, as part of a review process that may raise lease prices or royalty rates and could potentially account for climate impacts and costs from coal burning. Activists are holding out hope President Obama may do the same for oil and gas leasing before leaving office.

“We know the White House is paying attention, but whether it transfers into action, we’ll see,” says Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate director.

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of Interior, which oversees the BLM, recently told the Palm Springs Desert Sun that “fossil fuels are part of the problem” of climate change, but added, “It’s going to take a very long time before we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels. To keep it in the ground is naïve. To say we can shift to 100 percent renewables is naïve.”

Several recent BLM lease sales have been cancelled, however, not because of protests, but due to waning interests in leases as oil and gas prices have plummeted. Oil production on federal lands has doubled under the Obama administration — thanks in part to increased and more efficient drilling facilitated by hydraulic fracturing. But last year, the BLM offered more than 4 million acres of lease sales, while industry bid on only 15 percent of those areas, according to Congressional testimony by BLM Director Neil Kornze, this March.

At the same hearing, Kornze also seemingly compared the growing presence of climate and energy protestors at lease sales to antigovernment militia members who recently occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. “We've also had an abnormal security situation related to some public agencies, including ours,” Kornze said. “We have had a situation where we have had militia; we've had people raising arms at different times. We are on heightened alert and we are concerned about safety. And so a situation that we are not used to — separating out who is a bidder and who is not — gives us pause."

Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry has run with the comparison. “It’s not just a protest, it’s an extreme movement,” said Aaron Johnson, communication manager for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and gas industry. Johnson added that halting federal-lands drilling would have disastrous impacts on gas and energy prices and manufacturing costs.

Amid the noise and commotion at the Holiday Inn, the lease sale started just 7 minutes late, down a hallway away from the occupied lobby where protestors continued their chants: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.” Maybe that new world wasn't achieved this week, but the protestors' voices were clearly heard.

Inside the auction room, about 15 individuals bid on 6 parcels covering 7,000 acres in western Colorado. The proceedings took less than 30 minutes, and the first sale closed at just $2 per acre, the federal minimum price.

Joshua Zaffos is a Fort Collins, Colorado-based HCN correspondent. Follow him @jzaffos.

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