SALT LAKE CITY — Utah environmentalists hope their disruption of a federal oil-and-gas lease auction and the purchase of development rights on a small stretch of land by an author and activist bring attention to a nationwide push to halt fossil fuel extraction on Western lands.
But oil and gas industry officials say environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams’ bid on at least 800 acres is insignificant. And, they say the group’s refusal to stop singing that led them to be escorted from the Tuesday auction in Salt Lake City will give the industry fuel to push the BLM to hold online auctions in the future.
The events evoke memories of climate change activist Tim DeChristopher, who served 21 months in prison for sabotaging a 2008 Utah auction to thwart drilling near Utah’s national parks by bidding on $1.8 million of lands he couldn’t pay for.
But, Williams is not expected to face any consequences as long as she pays several thousand dollars she’ll owe for the rights.
Tempest Williams’ made her bid after nearly 100 protesters were escorted peacefully out of the auction when they refused to stop singing, said Bureau of Land Management spokesman Ryan Sutherland. There were no arrests or confrontations.
Holding signs that said, “Our lands, our future” and “#KeepItInTheGround,” they marched to the convention center and took their seats in the gallery before breaking into song with the refrain, “I hear the voice of my great granddaughters saying, keep it in the ground.”
Tempest Williams said she purchased the lease rights to shine a light on the negative effects of climate change. She is set to pay $1,600 for 800 acres near Arches National Monument, with several thousand more acres pending approval.
The author has a long history of advocating for protection of Utah’s wild spaces that includes supporting DeChristopher and being on stage with President Bill Clinton in 1996 when he announced he was protecting 2 million acres in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
She bid on parcels that went unsold during the live auction, sending them into a non-competitive part of the sale where people submit bids at BLM offices. The agency will likely announce winners of those bids on Thursday, Sutherland said.
The lease gives her the right to look for and extract oil and gas, pending federal approvals.
She’s not saying exactly what she plans to do. But she plans to register a company in the name “Tempest Exploration.” She’ll be guided by striving for a livable future for all, she said.
“We are at a crossroads,” Williams said in a text message Wednesday. “We can continue on the path we are on that privileges profit over people and land, or we can unite as citizens with a common cause — the health and wealth of the earth that sustains us.”
Kathleen Sgamma of the oil industry trade group Western Energy Alliance, said Williams will be wasting her money since there was no interest in the land and the lease doesn’t give her ownership.
“It was clearly a rather childish attempt to stop a public process,” Sgamma said. “It’s not like she stopped a company from operating there. I think she might be a little bit confused what an oil and gas lease is.”
Sgamma said Tuesday’s events illustrate why BLM should switch to online auctions.
The BLM in Utah had to cancel an auction scheduled for November after they realized they didn’t have a big enough room to accommodate protesters who wanted to watch. The agency is proceeding with traditional auctions in Utah, with the next one set for May, while leaving a decision about online auctions to headquarters in Washington D.C., Sutherland said.
Climate change activists plan to continue to protest auctions in an attempt to persuade President Barack Obama to halt leases for fossil fuel extraction, said Lauren Wood of the Living Rivers group in Utah.
“There are lots of concerned citizens that don’t want to see landscapes ruined,” Wood said. “It will only grow in momentum from here.”