The Bureau of Land Management late last night announced it is postponing today's scheduled oil and gas lease sale in Salt Lake City to appease activists who are fighting to keep those minerals in the ground.
BLM had planned to lease up to 37,580 acres scattered around the center of the Beehive State for future oil and gas development, but the agency said it needed more time to "better accommodate the high level of public interest in attending the sale."
It marks the first time that the "Keep it in the Ground" climate movement -- which seeks to end the sale of federally owned oil, gas and coal -- has disrupted a BLM lease auction.
BLM said it intends to reschedule the sale in the "near future."
"As a public agency, we understand the importance of transparency," said BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall. "Given the large interest, we chose to postpone the sale and will be working to find the best way to accommodate the public and those who wish to attend and participate in the auction when it is held."
It was the third consecutive BLM lease sale to be confronted by climate protesters who believe the burning of federally owned fossil fuels will undermine the nation's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Roughly 50 people gathered last week outside BLM's Colorado headquarters in Lakewood to protest the agency's sale of 90,000 acres in the Pawnee National Grassland, according to the Western Energy Alliance.
BLM moved forward with that auction, selling 106 parcels covering 83,534 acres for $5 million.
Protesters also demonstrated outside a Nov. 3 lease sale in Wyoming.
Crandall said there was not enough room in BLM's downtown Salt Lake City auction room to accommodate members of the public who wanted to attend. The room is about 28 feet wide by 60 feet long and also has to accommodate up to 30 bidders and reporters, she said.
BLM planned to live-stream the auction, but many activists insisted on attending in person, she said.
The "Keep it in the Ground" campaign is backed by some major environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and is buoyed in Congress by legislation from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that would end new leasing and renewals of nonproducing federal leases for oil, coal and gas.
The movement is riding the momentum of President Obama's recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and Royal Dutch Shell PLC's decision to abandon oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean. It now seeks to stop BLM from leasing fossil fuels in the West and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling.
In Salt Lake City this morning, roughly 40 activists displayed theatrical bidding paddles, held up photos of their grandkids and sang folk songs including John Prine's "Paradise," according to Tim Ream, an organizer from WildEarth Guardians who is based in San Francisco and attended this morning's protest. Organizing groups included WildEarth, the Center for Biological Diversity, Women's Congress for Future Generations, 350.org, the Rainforest Action Network and Elders Rising for Intergenerational Justice.
Ream said BLM informed him last week that some members of the public would be turned back from the auction room regardless of whether there was space. This morning's protest was led primarily by older activists who had no intention of disrupting the sale, he said.
"They wanted to touch the hearts of those who are selling and buying our public lands," he said. "They realized two years in prison is too high a price."
Ream was referring to the two-year prison sentence handed down in 2011 to activist Tim DeChristopher for his decision to pose as a bidder at a BLM lease sale in Utah in late 2008 and snatch up $1.8 million in leases with no intention of paying for them.
Vaughn Lovejoy of the group Elders Rising was among those who attended this morning's rally.
"We'd like to see if there's a way to inspire my generation ... to spend this piece of our life doing something for the future rather than hanging out on cruise ships or golf courses," he said.
Ream said activists will also stage protests at BLM's upcoming oil and gas lease sales in Reno, Nev., on Dec. 8 and in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10. "We're going to keep on hitting every one of these lease sales," he said.
The American Petroleum Institute has criticized the movement and Merkley's legislation as a "political stunt," warning that halting federal sales of fossil fuels would hike energy costs and hurt the federal government's coffers.
The Mineral Leasing Act requires BLM to hold regular oil and gas auctions.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, whose members depend heavily on public lands leasing, said this morning that the Salt Lake City protesters are ignoring how increased production of natural gas has helped the nation transition away from coal that is more harmful to the climate when burned.
"Apparently, BLM is seeking a larger venue to accommodate the expected crowd of protesters whose goal is to disrupt the sale," she said. "These same professional protesters bragged that they were traveling to other lease sales to try to disrupt them, but they're on a fool's errand."
Sgamma noted that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has rebuffed the "Keep it in the Ground" movement as unrealistic.
"There are millions of jobs around the country that are dependent on these industries, and you can't just cut it off overnight," Jewell said in September during a breakfast organized by The Christian Science Monitor (Greenwire, Sept. 15).