“The Internet of Things” Comes to Public Lands

by Aaron Johnson, Manager of Communications on September 20, 2016 - 8:35am

Keep It In The Ground protestersWho could be opposed to a more efficient and innovative government? Only the most extreme environmental activists, and that’s exactly what we’re witnessing this week as the Bureau of Land Management holds its first online auction for oil and natural gas leases on public lands.

The agency is using decades-old technology that’s been around since eBay was founded in 1995 to conduct an online auction for leases in Mississippi and Kentucky. It’s a test before rolling out the technology to larger markets across the West. If successful, online auctions will enable BLM to host lease sales efficiently and at a lower cost.

Taxpayers benefit, particularly since lease sales generate millions in revenue for the federal government. The agency benefits because technical adaptation brings efficiency. The public benefits because it can view the transactions online in real time.

However, environmental groups that have protested lease sales over the past year would lead you to believe the government is closing itself off to public participation and limiting transparency. It’s a strange argument given the way online technology has transformed our world and broken down numerous barriers over the past two decades.

Most Americans view online auctions and webcasting as standard ways of doing business. Skype, eBay, and Amazon have been around for years. Grandparents are using Apple’s Facetime to keep up with grandkids. Refrigerators and garage door openers are now internet connected, not to mention powered by electricity generated from natural gas.

Actually, the federal government is lagging the consumer market by only beginning to use online auction and webcast technology in the fall of 2016.

Why is BLM doing this now anyway? For years, the auctions have been held in-person at BLM offices across the country, and they’re just as you would imagine. An auctioneer is at the front of the room, like with livestock or auto auctions, managing the bidding process. The audience, generally small, is made up of oil and natural gas company representatives interested in developing the energy resources on public lands.

Up until last year, BLM auctions were routine and mundane events that drew little interest from the public. That is until the Keep-It-in-the-Ground movement saw the sales as opportunities to hold anti-fracking, anti-fossil fuel protests.

For the past year, the Alliance has documented some of the numerous protests the environmental groups have staged. Given the history of these groups, it’s not surprising the protests have been unruly and highly disruptive. In some instances, like last year in Utah, BLM postponed lease sales in order to assemble appropriate security personnel and space offsite to protect its employees.

Keep-It-in-the-Ground protesters have become such a threat that BLM Director Neil Kornze equated them to armed militiamen while testifying in a congressional committee. In light of these threats, online auctions make sense. Transitioning to online auctions eliminates the opportunity for activists to interfere with government revenue-generating work. And, conveniently, last year Congress passed legislation authorizing the agency to hold online auctions.

But it doesn’t mean environmental groups and the general public can’t be involved. There remain multiple opportunities, up to five, for them to be engaged in the leasing process. The fact is most activists can’t be bothered to engage in the existing democratic process because it’s less fun to come up with well-reasoned arguments than yelling and waving protest signs.

Any public lands nominated by industry for potential leasing undergo environmental review and public comment. BLM gives the public several opportunities to comment about which lands are leased and developed, including three during the Resource Management Planning process, two when a Master Leasing Plan is developed, two or three during the lease sale analysis process, during the project environmental analysis phases, and when a permit to drill is submitted. Anybody can submit comments.

Environmental groups see a transition to online auctions as a threat only because it limits their chance to stage disruptive protests, not because it limits public input. Western Energy Alliance strongly supports BLM’s efforts to implement online auctions. At a time when Americans are so accustomed to “the Internet of things,” it only makes sense for the government to keep pace.

If the Keep-It-in-the-Ground movement wants to live in the Stone Age, then by all means have at it. But the rest of the world is moving on.