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Fossil Fuel Abolitionists Take Their Fight to Federal Lands

The Keep It in the Ground campaign wants to end oil and gas extraction on America’s public lands. First, it will have to survive industry pushback and government skeptics.

By Jimmy Tobias


Mustangs run across Tule Valley, Utah. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible, under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, to manage mustangs on public lands in 10 Western states. (Photo: Qfl247/Wikimedia Commons)

The auctioneer, an aging fellow with a faint drawl, stands behind a podium in the Salt Lake City Public Library and prepares to lease four parcels of federal land to the highest bidder. Behind grey tables sit various oil and gas representatives, waiting to buy if the price is right.

“Do I hear an opening bid of two dollars [per acre] to start? Two dollar bid? Two dollar bid?” the auctioneer asks. One of the bidders makes a brief motion. “I have two dollars here! Now to two and a quarter. I have two and a quarter! Now to two and a half.”

This is a Bureau of Land Management lease auction, one of dozens that happen across the country each year. Normally they are dull bureaucratic affairs where agents of the American people lease public land to oil and gas drillers for dirt-cheap prices. But on this warm May morning things are different.

From the back of the cramped conference hall comes a disruption. Five young women rush into the middle of the room, link arms, fall to the floor, and start singing in low, soulful tones.

People gunna rise like the water, we’re gunna calm this crisis down. I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter, saying keep it in the ground.

One-third of global oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and more than 80 percent of coal reserves should remain unused until at least 2050 if the world community is to limit average global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius.

The auctioneer steps aside and a local BLM official asks for silence. The protestors don’t comply. He signals to a half-dozen policemen. With plastic gloves on their hands and guns on their hips, they order the protestors to leave.

The young women continue chanting.

Weeeeeee are strooong together. Weeeeeee are strooong together.

The protestors are lifted to their feet, still singing, and police haul them away. One woman is dragged across the floor in her floral red skirt.

The auctioneer resumes his work. “Can I have three? Can I have three?”

A man bids and, just as the deal is sealed, another round of protestors — grandmothers and grandfathers with the climate group Elders Rising — stand up and start singing. They, too, are removed. Again the auctioneer. Again an interruption. Again and again and again.

Not long ago, hardly anyone paid attention to such lease auctions. They are the boring bread and butter of the federal government’s onshore oil and gas program, which, as of last year, administered leases on 32 million acres of public land and was responsible for nearly 10 percent of domestic oil and gas production. The climate movement, however, and its Keep It in the Ground campaign in particular, have changed all that.

Across the country, and especially in the West, an attempt to turn once mundane auctions into political theater, where activists denounce fossil fuel extraction on federal land, has opened a new front in the fight over America’s energy future. With its call to eventually abolish the practice of pulling oil, gas, and coal out of the public’s land, Keep It in the Ground represents an audacious challenge to a key pillar of the domestic fossil fuel economy. The oil and gas industry has ridiculed the effort and sought to squash it in its infancy, but the campaign is ascendant, and its abolitionist sentiments are spreading.

It began in part with Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student who, in 2008, effectively shut down a lease auction by outbidding competitors for oil and gas parcels despite having no way to pay for them. DeChristopher’s decision to monkey wrench BLM business earned him two felony convictions and 21 months in prison. His civil disobedience, however, helped expose the George W. Bush-era oil and gas bonanza then unfolding on public land, and it drew national attention to the carbon costs of federal domain drilling.


Protesters from Peaceful Uprising at Tim DeChristopher’s sentencing on July 26, 2011. (Photo: Jonathan Mauer/Wikimedia Commons)

The seeds of DeChristopher’s solitary stand, fertilized by the early work of indigenous activists, anti-tar-sands campaigners, and strip-mine opponents, have finally sprouted. In the last year, Keep It in the Ground has moved from the fringe to the center of the climate conversation. Green groups like WildEarth Guardians and began organizing regular lease auction protests in 2015 and helped send a 100,000-signature petition to the White House. Shortly thereafter, a group of Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would ban new oil, coal, or gas leases on federal land. Keep It in the Ground made a mark on the presidential campaign trail too, where Bernie Sanders used the five-word phrase to describe his position on the federal oil, gas, and coal programs.

The campaign, though, goes deeper than proposed legislation and street protests. It represents the merging of two vital strands of environmentalism: On the one hand, there’s the “solid stodgy” public lands conservation movement, as the poet Gary Snyder once described it. From the Wilderness Act to the roadless rule, public land conservationists have spent a century expertly protecting our national forests, parks, and more. On the other hand, there’s the youthful passion and bold goals of the climate movement. Add them together and you have Keep It in the Ground. It’s a potent combination.

The oil and gas industry, perhaps sensing the peril that Keep It in the Ground poses, is trying to laugh it out of existence. On its website and in the press, for instance, the Western Energy Alliance, which bills itself as the “voice of the industry in the West,” has tried to paint the campaigners as “paid protestors on tour.” It has called the campaign a “three-ring circus” and described author Terry Tempest Williams, who has protested lease auctions in Utah, as a “confused environmentalist.”

WEA representatives declined to comment for this story, but instead directed me to the group’s blog. “True Keep-It-in-the-Ground believers want to wreck the economy,” writes WEA’s Vice President Kathleen Sgamma. “They believe killing fossil fuels will mean that renewables will suddenly blossom and replace fossil fuels, and if people can’t afford electricity or engage in economic activities, that’s just how it goes.”

WEA and other oil and gas interests are also pushing the BLM to move its lease auctions online in order to deprive activists of a protest target. The federal agency says Congress has authorized it to take such a step.

An online forum “would be a more efficient venue to host the lease sale…” says BLM spokesman Ryan Sutherland, adding that online auctions “will not be subject to the disruptions and additional costs associated with security and off-site venues for the sales.”

Meanwhile, even Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has cast aspersions on the campaign. “It is going to take a very long time before we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels,” she told the Desert Sun in May, “so I think that to keep it in the ground is naïve.”

Jewell’s comment, and others like it, misunderstand, or willfully ignore, Keep It in the Ground’s long game. Sure, the campaigners want to radically alter the way Americans view fossil fuel extraction on public land, but they are not seeking its immediate abolition. They are not even asking the BLM to cancel leases it has already issued. And they certainly do not expect to prevent every lease auction they protest. Rather, what they want now is eminently attainable: a moratorium on new federal oil and gas leases while the Department of the Interior conducts a full-scale review of the program’s environmental, health, and climate impacts.


Sally Jewell speaks at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jewell may call this demand naïve, but just last year she authorized a similar review of the federal coal program, including a temporary moratorium on new coal leases. “We formally petitioned the Secretary of the Interior … to assess the environmental impact of the federal oil and gas program,” says Tim Ream, a staffer with WildEarth Guardians. “She won’t do it yet for the oil and gas program, even though the climate impacts are more or less identical with the coal program.”

Ream hopes public pressure and scientific evidence will eventually force the Department of the Interior to act. He points, for instance, to a study published last year in Nature that reported one-third of global oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and more than 80 percent of coal reserves should remain unused until at least 2050 if the world community is to limit average global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius and avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. To accomplish that goal, much of BLM’s 700-million-acre mineral estate will have to stay under the dark dirt.

Eventually police clear the protestors from the auction and, within a few short minutes, it is finished. The BLM leased a total of 3,952 acres that day for an average of $2.57 per acre. Pioneer Oil and Gas of South Jordan, Utah, was the big winner. After the auction, facing no arrests, about 40 people gather outside the library to sing, speak, and wave placards at passing motorists.

Kathy Albury, a member of Elders Rising who helped interrupt the auction, says she is most definitely not a paid agitator. Rather, she’s a local resident here for her family.

“Like the song says, I hear the voice of my great granddaughter saying keep it in the ground,” she says. “We cannot continue to take fossil fuels out of the ground and have a livable world for the future for our species or any other species for that matter.”

Albury plans to be at the next protest, and the one after that, and on and on until the campaign gets what it wants. In the meantime, though, her grandkids are coming to town to spend time with their activist elder.