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For Opponents of Public Lands Drilling, a Big Year and a Brewing Backlash

As the Keep It in the Ground campaign enters its second year, climate activists confront surveillance, subpoenas, and strategies to stifle their momentum.

By Jimmy Tobias


Environmental activists protest the Obama administration’s plans to allow new fossil fuel drilling on public lands and oceans during a demonstration held by the Keep It in the Ground coalition in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2015. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

On September 15th, dozens of agitators interrupted the daily routine at the Department of the Interior. They marched into its hulking Washington, D.C., headquarters and demanded an end to the decades-long practice of leasing public land to oil and gas drillers. Security guards swarmed. Department employees looked on with curiosity or indifference. By mid-afternoon, federal police had handcuffed and hauled away 13 activists, their shouts of “keep it in the ground!” and “no new leases!” ricocheting off the building’s stately walls as supporters gathered outside.

It’s a sign of our climate-threatened times that standard industrial practices — pipeline development, public lands drilling, power plant construction — have become deeply controversial. It’s also a testament to environmental activism’s impact. The protestors were part of the “Keep It in the Ground” campaign, a bid by Western green groups to stop fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and waters. They had come from Wyoming and Montana, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, Colorado and the Gulf Coast to celebrate their campaign’s one-year anniversary, deliver a petition to President Barack Obama, and draw attention to the cause.

“We are mothers. We are daughters. We are sisters. We are here because our American public needs to know,” bellowed Jackie Antalan, an organizer and fourth-generation resident of Mobile, Alabama, as her companions were carried off in police vehicles. “We want you to know: We need your help. Help us! Help our families! Help our land!”

By any activist metric, Keep It in the Ground has had a good year. It staged persistent protests at federal oil and gas auctions across the country, where Department of the Interior officials regularly lease public land to private companies. As I wrote in a June column, these disruptions have transformed once-mundane auctions into contested terrain. They’ve helped remind the American people that the public lands aren’t idyllic wilderness landscapes, but a more complicated mix of open space and industrial sacrifice zone.

The campaign also moved into the legal arena this summer. In late August, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility filed an ambitious lawsuit in federal court challenging the Obama administration’s leasing of nearly 400,000 acres of public land to oil interests. The lawsuit argues that the government failed to fulfill its legal responsibility to consider the environmental and climate impacts of the leases.

While activists plod on, however, new barriers seek to block their path. In the last six months alone, undercover federal agents have spied on lease auction protestors. Bureau of Land Management officials, at the oil industry’s behest, have started moving oil and gas lease auctions online. Right-wing videographers regularly stalk Bill McKibben and other key leaders. And House Republicans have issued subpoenas to green groups and scientists as if they are conspiring criminals. A brewing backlash, both predictable and perilous, confronts climate campaigners.

The Department of the Interior disturbance came less than a week before a little noticed but highly consequential policy pivot. On September 20th, the Bureau of Land Management held its first regular onlineauction for oil and gas leases on public land. Normally, the BLM conducts auctions on a quarterly basis at select offices across the United States. They are flesh-and-blood affairs, where citizens can observe the process by which publicly owned mineral wealth is made available to private interests. Industry, however, has lobbied to push that process into the immaterial realm of the Internet. It sees digital bidding as a way to deprive Keep It in the Ground of a forum for its grievances.

“Transitioning auctions from in-person to online will enable [the Bureau of Land Management] to meet its obligations under existing law, reduce administrative costs and eliminate disruptions from Keep-It-in-the-Ground protestors,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group, in a recent press release applauding the new online system.

The online process also shifts power away from public agencies: The third-party contractor that BLM selected to manage the digital auctions, a for-profit entity called EnergyNet, has close ties to the Western Energy Alliance and other oil and gas trade groups, as investigative freelancer Steve Horn has documented. Indeed, oilmen founded the company in 1999. In giving EnergyNet access to the BLM auction block, the process of privatizing public wealth has itself been privatized and put in industry hands.

A brief bird’s eye survey of the fossil fuel battlefield this might be, but it gives one a sense of the scrum-like dynamic that climate campaigners continue to face.

Keep It in the Ground campaigners claim to be undeterred. During the online bid last week, in which more than 4,000 acres of federal estate in Kentucky and Mississippi were leased to industry for just $80,000, environmentalists flooded the BLM and EnergyNet with online comments and called the latter’s headquarters more than 2,000 times.

“EnergyNet should expect to hear from Keep It in the Ground in the days and weeks and months to come,” says Jason Schwartz, a Greenpeace organizer. “We want them to know that it doesn’t matter to us that they are going online.”

Meanwhile, back in the physical world, activists have had to confront the startling fact that undercover federal agents secretly monitored one of their largest rallies last spring. A recent investigation published in The Intercept found that plainclothes officers walked among protestors at a Colorado lease auction in May. The Center for Biological Diversity has since filed a comprehensive public records request with the Department of the Interior to discern whether surveillance has occurred on other occasions.

“The oil and gas industry exerts a tremendous amount of control over the Obama administration and federal agencies,” says Taylor McKinnon, a staffer with the Center. “It does not surprise me one bit to see this sort of policing deployed in order to ultimately protect the fossil fuel industry’s interests.”

The BLM would not comment on the undercover agents at the Colorado rally. It did, however, confirm that its online lease program would soon expand. “The BLM’s intent,” writes Linda Lance, a deputy director at the agency, in an emailed statement, “is to continue phasing in the internet-based leasing system with the goal of having the option to use internet-based bidding or in-person auctions for all 2017 lease sales.”

Public lands drilling, of course, is only one of the climate movement’s many fronts, and Big Oil’s backlash is likewise multipronged.

In Congress, for instance, a witch-hunt is underway, with Representative Lamar Smith of Texas playing the part of a climate-denying Cotton Mather. Smith chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and has received more than $650,000 in oil industry campaign contributions throughout his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This summer he sent subpoenas to a group of state attorneys general who are investigating ExxonMobil for its misleading public relations tactics and potential securities fraud. He also subpoenaed eight non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that publicly support the #ExxonKnew investigations, including Greenpeace and

“The Committee has a responsibility to protect First Amendment rights of companies, academic institutions, scientists, and nonprofit organizations,” Smith said in a public statement after announcing the subpoenas in July. “That is why the Committee is obligated to ask for information from the attorneys general and others.” The state officials and NGOs have so far refused to comply.

Smith’s actions are a chilling salvo, though not so chilling as the advent of a right-wing paparazzi dedicated to stalking and humiliating key green leaders. In a June op-ed in the New York Times, Bill McKibben wrote about a group of videographers from a Republican-run opposition research firm that follows him everywhere he goes. They are also after Tom Steyer, the outspoken billionaire environmentalist.

“To be watched so much is a kind of never-ending nightmare. And sometimes it’s just infuriating,” McKibben writes. “When my daughter reports someone taking pictures of her at the airport, it drives me nuts.”

Maddening as they are, McKibben recognizes his burdens as relatively benign — environmentalists across the globe, after all, are regularly gunned down. Right-wing stalkers, like right-wing subpoenas, can’t compare.

A brief bird’s eye survey of the fossil fuel battlefield this might be, but it gives one a sense of the scrum-like dynamic that climate campaigners continue to face. For every activist achievement — Keystone XL, Dakota Access, the Department of the Interior’s moratorium on new public land coal leases — there is a powerful interest somewhere pushing back. Then again, that fact should come as validation. Just as sit-ins are meant to generate arrests (and headlines), pushback is part of the payoff too. It’s irrefutable proof that the oil and gas industry’s opponents, with their call to end carbon pollution, are making their foe afraid.”