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At the 11th hour, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decided to postpone an auction of Utah oil and gas leases that activists were planning to protest Tuesday because of climate-altering emissions that would be released if these parcels were drilled.
Those activists celebrated the BLM's move as a cancellation of the auction, but officials still plan to sell rights to drill 39 parcels covering 37,580 acres of public land and will use this postponement to find a more suitable venue, not conduct further review of the parcels.
"We do intend to move forward with rescheduling today's sale in the near future once we determine the best way to accommodate the high level of interest in attending and participating in the sale," BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said.
The Utah office concluded that its auction room, the one activist Tim DeChristopher made famous in 2008, was not large enough to seat all the activists who expressed a desire to observe bidders raise their paddles.
The parcels themselves, most located in Emery and Carbon counties, were not particularly controversial and made up about half the acreage the agency initially proposed leasing.
After wilderness advocates, historic preservationists and the National Park Service raised objections that the auction would have opened areas around wilderness-quality lands and ancient rock-art sites to drilling, the BLM pulled 16 parcels.
While industry criticized the reduced offerings, climate activists were not placated and continued demanding an end to all leasing.
According to a formal protest filed by WildEarth Guardians, the BLM should be required to analyze climate impacts associated with burning the oil and gas from these deposits, which contain between 1.6 to 6.6 million tons of "potential greenhouse gas pollution."
Earlier this week, activists promised a "major protest" at the auction, part of a regionwide campaign dubbed "Keep it in the Ground." The BLM's Colorado office handled a similar demonstration last week at its Denver headquarters, where the same groups had inundated an otherwise routine quarterly auction.
This effort mirrors long-shot legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination aimed at blocking future oil and gas leasing on federal land and canceling idle leases. Activists like WildEarth's Tim Ream argue that the federal government must limit industry's access to publicly owned deposits of oil, gas and coal because burning these resources burdens the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
"The [Utah] rally will be led by elders calling on the BLM to act to prevent catastrophic climate change and ensure a livable future for younger and future generations," reads a statement issued jointly by Elders Rising for Intergenerational Justice, Canyon Country Rising Tide, Women's Congress for Future Generations, 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, Rainforest Action Network and WildEarth. These groups still gathered Tuesday morning in front of the BLM's Utah headquarters in Salt Lake City to celebrate.
"Thanks to the people-powered resistance, BLM is backing off and reassessing the corporate giveaway of our public lands. It is going to be community leaders stepping up in Utah and all over the country that will help end the fossil fuel leasing of America's most precious resources," said Ruth Breech of the Rainforest Action Network. "A delay on this lease sale in Utah means less public lands doomed to industrialization and a glimmer of hope to break the corporate stronghold on our future."
An industry group also endorsed the BLM's decision to postpone the sale.
"I can sympathize with BLM preventing this from becoming a circus. These groups aren't about giving useful input. They are about stopping oil and gas development," said Kathleen Sgamma, public affairs director for the Western Energy Alliance. "These groups are clearly misguided, asking BLM to violate the law for policies that absolutely make no sense."
She noted that the nation still runs on oil and the rise of natural gas is displacing carbon-heavy coal in power generation.
"They are protesting against an energy source that provides more climate benefits than wind and solar combined," Sgamma said. "This is not a reasonable movement."
Not involved with Tuesday's demonstration were the BLM's usual antagonists on oil and gas leases in Utah, such as the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Utah Rock Art Research Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
SUWA had filed mostly successful protests on 15 parcels in and near the Mussentuchit Badlands, south of Emery including one within sight of Capitol Reef National Park and another three in the Book Cliffs.
Another protested parcel is a half-mile from the famed Rochester Creek rock-art panel outside Emery, and drilling there could prevent access to the panel, preservationists said. The BLM reconfigured this lease.
The agency also fielded concerns raised by American Indian tribes and the Utah State Historic Preservation Office.
The National Outdoor Leadership School had objected to leasing a parcel in Desolation Canyon along a stretch of the Green River that is popular for whitewater paddling. While the BLM pulled that one, it declined to pull two others in the Uintah Basin proposed for wilderness near the Colorado state line at Bitter Creek and Hideout Canyon.
The BLM will defer a decision on 16 parcels "in order to address significant concerns about the potential impacts of drilling on spectacular ancient rock art, treasured national park resources and areas of cultural importance to local communities and area tribes. We have a responsibility to get it right and believe these areas deserve additional review," Crandall said.
Even before those 16 were pulled, Utah officials had accused the BLM of protecting too many parcels from drilling, especially in the Uintah Basin. The BLM excluded several parcels to comply with new restrictions needed to prevent greater sage grouse's listing as a threatened species.
The BLM will accept protests through Dec. 14 to its next auction, set for Feb. 16, when it plans to sell leases on just seven parcels covering 8,120 acres administered by the Moab field office.