While oil and gas companies hold nearly 20 million acres of land leased for oil and gas drilling that has yet to be developed, the US Bureau of Land Management has rejected Tempest Exploration Company, LLC's ability to do the same.

During the quarterly BLM sale of oil and gas leases in February, environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams registered as a bidder simply to get a seat where she could watch the action, and later, visited the local BLM office, where she and her husband, Brooke Williams, bid on two leases no one else had sought in the lease auction. On Oct. 18, the BLM rejected their offers for those leases.

Terry Tempest Williams in a recent appearance at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe.
Terry Tempest Williams in a recent appearance at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe. / Julie Ann Grimm

"We are disappointed in the agency's decision to hold us to a different standard than other lessees. The agency claims that it cannot issues the leases because we did not commit to developing them," the Williamses wrote in a statement released through the Western Environmental Law Center. "The BLM has never demanded that a lease applicant promise to develop the lease before it was issued. In fact, a great many lessees maintain their leases undeveloped for decades, thereby blocking other important uses of the land such as conservation and recreation."

They've paid the fees and said that they would consider developing those leases when science supports a sustainable use of oil and gas "given the costs of climate change to future generations." It's the same approach oil and gas leases uses in the exploratory leasing decisions and in now waiting out low oil and gas prices.

On some of the nearly 20 million acres leased to but not yet developed by oil and gas companies, the Williamses point out, the BLM has suspended those leases, allowing the lessees to stop paying rent on them, though the companies lose no control over those lands.

"The BLM's decision to reject our lease bids highlights the agency's misdirected and antiquated approach to fossil fuels, illuminating their fidelity to the oil and gas industry while willfully ignoring the urgency—in an era of climate change—of more enlightened management of the public lands that belong to the American people," the Williams statement reads. They are currently assessing their options for recourse, including an administrative appeal to the Department of the Interior's Board of Land Appeals.

In the face of ongoing protests from activists organized under the Keep It In The Ground movement at these mandated quarterly auctions, the BLM begun moving them online, a shift the Western Energy Alliance celebrated as a model of increased government efficiency and innovation.

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,” Aaron Johnson, manager of communications at the oil and gas industry trade group Western Energy Alliance, wrote in a blog post in September.

Last year, Congress past legislation allowing online auctions, and Johnson argued they should be used as a way of eliminating activists’ ability to interfere, and points to opportunities to submit written comments at several points in the planning 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,” he writes. “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.”

The latest auction for oil and gas leases on nearly 14,000 acres in New Mexico was held Sept. 2 in Roswell after being postponed from July 20. Earlier scheduled to take place in Santa Fe, where protesters planned to line the street in front of a hotel where it would take place, an abrupt change of venue generated public outcry and a rally of those calling for the Obama administration to stop issuing new oil and gas leases.

In the last year, nine BLM oil and gas lease sales have been postponed in the face of protests. Western Energy Alliance recently sued the BLM over its failure to meet the quarterly lease sales of federal oil and gas resources as required by the Mineral Leasing Act. 

“Online auctions enable BLM to meet its obligations under existing law, reduce administrative costs, and eliminate disruptions from Keep-It-in-the-Ground protesters,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Alliance, said in a press release. “The public still has the opportunity to participate at multiple points in the leasing process, but the actual sale will use up-to-date technology.”

At the BLM’s first online auction on Sept. 20, it sold 14 parcels, for 4,214 acres, in Kentucky and Mississippi.

WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility filed a lawsuit in August challenging the Obama administration for failing to account for the greenhouse gas emissions or climate change impacts of ongoing oil and gas leasing, despite requirements to do just that in the National Environmental Policy Act. In just two years, the greenhouse gas emissions from federal oil and gas reserves released more than 612 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—more than the combined emissions from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

“In spite of the president’s commitment to US leadership in moving towards a clean energy future—and the significant contribution to atmospheric [greenhouse gas] levels made by BLM’s oil and gas leasing program,” the lawsuit states, “federal defendants continue to authorize the sale and issuance of hundreds of federal oil and gas leases on public lands across the Interior West without meaningfully acknowledging or evaluating the climate change implications of their actions.”