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As BLM auctioneer Glen Parker began soliciting bids on a handful of Utah oil and gas leases Tuesday, about 40 visitors chanted softly in two-part harmony, the latest effort by climate activists to disrupt sales of hydrocarbon minerals under public lands.
The auction, which proved to be a near-total bust, went on after Salt Lake City police peeled singers off the floor and escorted them from the meeting room at the city's main library while the chanting grew louder.
"People gonna rise up with the water,
"We're gonna calm this crisis down," they sang. "I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter,
" 'Keep it in the ground.' "
A few sarcastic remarks aside, the scene was remarkable for the civility and respect protesters and police showed each other. Officers refrained from arresting anyone, although Bureau of Land Management officials cautioned auction observers that disruptions would be met with arrest.
Across the West, activists are protesting federal oil and gas auctions, arguing that publicly owned fossil fuels should be left in the ground because burning coal, oil and gas is creating "climate chaos" by filling the atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide.
"I came because they are auctioning the land we collectively need to survive to oil and gas when we don't need it. You are talking about our watersheds," said Cali Bulmash, of Moab, after reciting an impassioned poem on the corner outside the library entrance.
Bulmash was among a contingent of activists who crashed the auction in support of the Salt Lake City group Elders Rising, which has joined forces with the "Keep it in the Ground" movement in demanding an end to federal oil and gas leasing.
"They are under the mistaken legal belief that they have to sell these leases every quarter. The Department of Interior has the discretion not to," said Tim Ream of WildEarth Guardians. "Industry thinks they have the upper hand, but we don't think that's right. There are millions of acres of leases that are suspended, paying no rents, and they can hold them until prices go back up."
While the anti-leasing crusade gains momentum, however, many have doubts it will make much of an impact in the debate over public lands and climate change.
In a recent interview, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell chided it as "naive" and unrealistic because the transition to carbon-neutral energy sources will take time.
Industry backers have derided "Keep it in the Ground" as hypocritical and self-defeating. Increased natural-gas production from public lands, abetted by leasing and fracking, has helped displaced carbon-heavy coal as the fuel of choice in the nation's power plants, thereby helping reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Western Energy Alliance.
But for Courtney McBride of Holladay, the protests make an important point: Governments must quit enabling further emissions that are heating the planet.
"We are beyond the tipping point," McBride said outside the library where protesters gathered to continue singing and display placards. "We are at the point where we need to focus on mitigating the damage,"
On the block were four parcels in Sevier County totaling under 8,000 acres less than 10 percent of the acreage oil and gas companies had nominated for this sale, which covered lands run by the BLM's field offices in Richfield, Kanab and St. George. The BLM withheld most of these parcels from leasing because they overlap sage grouse habitat.
The auction attracted six bidders, and two bids were made.
One was from the oil and gas industry Pioneer Oil & Gas, based in South Jordan. The other turned out to be a protester who had no means to cover the bids she made.
In a gesture reminiscent of Tim DeChristopher's phony bids in 2008, Victoria Ramos, who said she is homeless, won the right to buy a 1,713-acre parcel by raising a bidding paddle for a minimum bid. Outside the library, local environmentalist Hans Ehrbar offered to cover Ramos' $6,000 obligation, but it is unlikely the BLM would issue this lease.
BLM's next Utah auction is slated for Nov. 15, targeting the hydrocarbon-rich lands administered by the Vernal and Price field offices. Activists disrupted the last auction in February, when author Terry Tempest Williams and her husband, Brooke Williams, purchased a lease from the BLM after it failed to attract a minimum bid. Williams had attended the auction as a bidder, but she refrained from bidding to avoid breaking the law as DeChristopher had done.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly