#KeepItInTheGround and Misguided Utah Bidders

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on February 22, 2016 - 8:59am

Ever since President Obama handed a major victory to the environmental lobby by denying TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline, Big Green needed a new fight. The answer, announced within weeks, was the Keep-It-in-the-Ground movement, aimed at not developing any oil, natural gas or coal on federal lands.

At first, Secretary Jewell dismissed the goal as unreasonable, wisely noting that fossil fuels form the basis of our entire economy and despite the climate change goals of the administration, our energy sources can’t be switched off overnight without seriously harming the economy.

But that’s before she faced the wringer that is Big Green. By early January, she was announcing a moratorium on all coal leasing for the next 20 years. She failed to understand when giving her comments just four months earlier what exactly the goal is.

A Three-Ring Circus

True Keep-It-in-the-Ground believers want to wreck the economy. 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. Mother Earth must be saved from climate change no matter the cost. They fail to understand that the “remedy” of denying Americans the use of fossil fuels would be far more damaging to human life, safety and the environment.

Killing the economy doesn’t matter to the true believers, who were out in force last week protesting the Bureau of Land Management’s sale of 46 lease parcels in Utah. Carrying signs and accompanied by two fish-head mascots, they managed to make it through the auctioning of seven parcels before their short attention spans got the better of them. After being warned to stop singing and disrupting the bidding at the outset, police officers cleared the room without further incident.

As they left the room, they taunted the bidders, who gave it right back to them, reminding them that their transportation and fleece jackets were courtesy of the oil and natural gas industry. There were no arrests, and after the room was cleared, the auction proceeded in an orderly and adult fashion. 

Confused Environmentalist

But there was one twist. Terry Tempest Williams, who signed up as a bidder but spent her time at the auction live tweeting instead of bidding, afterwards purchased some acreage in Grand County. So she missed the opportunity for drama during the auction, but ended up paying $1,600 for lease parcels afterwards. Leases that aren’t sold at auction are available for purchase on a noncompetitive basis for up to two years afterwards. However, they’re rarely sold, as any company that was truly interested in them would not have skipped the auction and risked losing to another bidder.

The accolades were quick to fly from among the activists, with breathless comparisons to convicted felon Tim DeChristopher who disrupted a sale in 2008. Looking at her public statements, Ms. Williams seems a bit confused about what she bought.

Purchasing a lease is merely the right to develop oil and natural gas on it after conducting the required environmental analysis and obtaining various permits from BLM, a process that can take years. A lease does not give the holder access to occupy the land for other purposes. The public already has the right to visit any of our nation’s open public lands, including those under lease, without a lease or special permission.

A small portion of federal lands are closed to public access, such as lands for military purposes, or closed to mechanized access, such as wilderness areas, but otherwise, federal lands are open to public access. Permission must be gained for activities that involve installing structures, from wells to wind mills, or for holding activities such as an organized bike race. But access to visit public lands doesn’t require permission whether the land is leased for oil and natural gas or not. In fact, someone on the ground hiking or biking for example, would have no knowledge that they’ve entered a leased parcel. Unless there’s actually a well pad or other infrastructure, the land looks the same as any other non-park, non-wilderness public lands. In fact, while most lease parcels are hundreds or thousands of acres, actual surface disturbance happens on just a small fraction of the lease.

Williams leases give her no additional rights other than the right to seek permission to develop oil and natural gas. A lease does not grant any other ownership or right to access the lands above and beyond what all Americans already have.

Since the leases that Ms. Williams purchased had received no bids during the auction, it’s unlikely that there’s any interest from industry in developing them, so in effect she spent money for no reason. Her leases don’t entitle her to any other access that she didn’t already have as an American citizen, and it confers no other special access for her.