When Kendra Pinto stepped outside her grandmother’s northwestern New Mexico house on a July night to look for signs of a fire a friend texted her about, an orange glow lit the night sky. From a distance of miles, she could hear pops she now surmises were explosions overtaking storage tanks for oil wells recently drilled by WPX Energy.
"We didn't really know what to do because nothing like this has ever happened, and there's no protocol," Pinto says.
They relocated family members, including her sister's infant and her wheelchair-bound grandmother, farther from the fire, but concern for neighbors compelled Pinto, her father and her sister to drive back within half a mile of it. In photographs and video she shot, massive black pillars of smoke spiral away from the flame-lit tanks. What they don't show, she says, was just how big the fire became, how it roared and how smoke blocked the moon.
A parade of fire trucks and oil trucks circled the flames that, ultimately, WPX decided were too hot and potentially hazardous to fight. More than 55 families would be instructed to leave their homes for the Nageezi Chapter House, though no one knew to expect them there, and the gates to the chapter house stayed locked for hours while evacuees waited in their cars.
"There's no evacuation plan, and we talk about how the oil and gas industries out here don't try to communicate with the chapter houses," Pinto says. "The main thing is just chaos. There's no plan out here for things like this."
Pinto grew up around oil and gas development but just a year ago the increasing presence of wells, drilling rigs and oil trucks led her to join WildEarth Guardians and their campaign to stop the extraction of fossil fuels.
"I'm sure there was an 'Aha!' moment, but it's just sort of wanting to save the land, wanting to be able to keep the landscape as it was. It's changed so much within the past three years," she says. "It's crazy to think that none of that was there 10 years ago. We didn't have to worry about safety or explosions. Now, after Monday, that's all gone."
Sentiments in the community have split over development. Something that brings jobs and money can be tough to hate. After the July 11 fire, which was allowed to burn for days, Pinto says she thinks more people will at least want to talk about what's happening, and maybe more people elsewhere will pay attention.
"We're such a small, isolated community that no one really hears our voice," Pinto says. "So I'm glad that people are noticing, because this is a big issue for our community."
There's a "Can you hear me now?" core to the latest objections to ongoing fossil fuel extraction and burning. Even as they call for more transparency, more communication and better planning, environmentalists often feel stonewalled by a federal government that sometimes doesn't seem to account for their protests to ongoing leases and doesn't seem to want to make space for them to watch that process through to its conclusion.
Longtime participants in the government's mapped-out program, which calls for written protests, have jumped those tracks and started showing up at one of the few occasions where the action moves from on-paper to in person: oil and gas lease auctions. The federal government has responded to increasing interest in this typically players-only event by limiting access and making plans to put the whole process online. Interested parties are welcome to monitor proceedings as updates are posted on the US Bureau of Land Management's website. Never mind that many of them live in rural communities without high-speed internet access.
Each quarter, as required by Congress, the BLM holds mineral lease auctions. Parcels of land are nominated, often by energy companies interested in the mineral resources they sit atop, and companies bid for rights to explore them. Oil and gas leases start at $2 per acre, but prices can go much higher. An October 2015 lease sale saw a parcel in New Mexico go for $14,200 per acre.
In April, roughly 200 protesters arrived to watch an auction at the Courtyard Marriott on Cerrillos Road. They were invited to view the proceedings via live stream from an adjacent conference room, and only registered bidders were permitted to enter the auction room. Of 14 bidders, the BLM reported, seven of them were successful in purchasing a parcel. As Donna Hummel, communications chief for the New Mexico office of the BLM, explains, some of the other seven were "nontraditional bidders—people who wanted to be in the room and see the process, and filled out the paperwork that is required to be a bidder. That was how we allowed people into the room, whether they were representing oil and gas traditional bidders or they were there to learn more."
The auction is not the time for a conversation about this practice, an argument about fracking or any other form of public feedback, Hummel told SFR in the wake of the April auction. It's a time for doing business. There are multiple options for public input, and auctions, she insisted, aren't one of them.
Environmental watchdogs see them as another opportunity to be heard and to keep an eye on what's happening.
"These are not oil and gas lands. They're not lands that belong to a particular industry," says Lynne Fischer, who attended the April auction and plans to continue that practice. "These are public lands, and I'm a part of the public, so I think it's important that we should be there. … Because they're public lands, it just seems terribly wrong to try to remove the public and to curtail that dialogue."
The auctions provide a rare opportunity for oil and gas employees to see activists, Fischer adds, and for protesters to gather. Other options for weighing in, like writing letters to the BLM and calling congressional representatives, are done at home, alone.
Some activists, frustrated with the inability to protect public lands they love, have gone so far as to bid on the leases themselves. Misrepresenting yourself to the federal government as an energy company carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.
In 2008, Tim DeChristopher raised his paddle at a Utah auction to drive up prices on some parcels, and he eventually won nearly $1.8 million in leases for 22,000 acres in the red desert near Canyonlands National Park. The Obama administration later ruled that the BLM had cut corners to put the parcels up for sale, and the leases should never have been released to auction. Despite that conclusion, DeChristopher was convicted of false representation and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, and sentenced to two years in prison. While he toured the country between his conviction and his sentencing, DeChristopher told a supporter in Santa Fe, "We don't need to figure out how to keep me out of jail. We need to figure out how to get more people into jail."
In February, environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams and her husband, Brooke Williams, spent $2,500 for rights to 1,120 acres of land near their Utah home. She witnessed parcel after parcel sold at auction while protesters, cordoned to a separate area, sang until they drowned out the auctioneer, she wrote in The New York Times. Later, the couple purchased their parcels at the BLM office for a discounted price of $1.50 per acre.
"The land sits adjacent to a proposed wilderness area. When we visited, we were struck by its hard-edge beauty and castle-like topography," she wrote in the Times. "We're not suggesting that everyone who feels as we do about the exploitation of our public lands should do what we did. We aren't going to be able to buy our way out of this problem. Our purchase was more or less spontaneous, done with a coyote's grin, to shine a light on the auctioning away of America's public lands to extract the very fossil fuels that are warming our planet and pushing us toward climate disaster."
To comply with the law, they established Tempest Exploration Co., LLC, and plan to pay the annual rent for the 10-year lease. The energy they hope the land produces is that of support for the call to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
The invitation to watch the April auction in Santa Fe from a separate room was couched by activists as an attempt to stifle the public's voice, and fewer than a dozen visited the viewing room. When this quarter's auction rolled around, scheduled for July 20 at the same Santa Fe hotel, some protesters were prepared to register as bidders so they could watch the auction in person.
"We're not trying to get ourselves arrested, but we have supporters who just want to do something," says Eleanor Bravo, with Food and Water Watch.
Then the BLM made a late-in-the-game choice to move the July 20 auction for nearly 14,000 acres in the Carlsbad area from Santa Fe to Roswell, closer to the parcels for sale.
Bravo labels the move a "dirty trick," arguing that it violated the agency's 45-day rule for posting information on auctions. She says when she called them to say as much, the agency told her it's only the parcels that require 45-day notice; the venue is exempt.
"It's a thinly veiled attempt to keep the public out," she tells SFR.
Environmental groups responded with a plan to station protesters at both the Roswell auction and the BLM office in Santa Fe.
"We will not be deterred," Bravo says. "We're not going away."
A day after that conversation, she got in touch again with news. The BLM had phoned to say they decided to postpone the auction until Sept. 1, still in Roswell. Bravo called it a victory.
"We now can have some effect on what they're doing," she says. "Formerly, they wouldn't listen at all. Now they are beginning to bow to public opinion. … We want the public to have a say over what happens to public lands, so we feel like this is a big step in the right direction."
By WildEarth Guardians' count, the change marks the sixth time an auction has been canceled or postponed since the "Keep it in the Ground" campaign spurred protesters to increase their attendance and continue their objections to this practice.
The broader stroke sees the Obama administration moving these auctions further from public view. Activists characterize this as rightful embarrassment over an ongoing leasing program that flies in the face of a stated policy to address climate change; the two cannot coexist when one cancels out any progress made through the other.
The House Committee on Natural Resources passed a bill earlier this month that would require all offshore lease sales to be held online, and BLM's Eastern States office has already issued notice that their September auction will be held online and open solely to registered bidders. That registration requires confirming that bids "represent a good-faith intention to acquire an oil and gas lease" and a legally binding commitment to pay money for it, the BLM's notice reads. Knowingly and willfully misrepresenting your qualifications or intentions can result in a fine or imprisonment for up to five years—or both.
"Moving fossil fuel auctions online still doesn't hide the dangerous disconnect between the administration's climate rhetoric and its fossil fuel leasing," Taylor McKinnon, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release about the proposal. "The clock is ticking on the climate crisis, and each new lease makes a bad problem worse. It's time for the president to shut the federal carbon pollution spigot for good."
Living in today's world and objecting to oil and gas development necessitates becoming people of paradox, says William Clark, president of Rio Arriba Concerned Citizens. We all use oil and gas, he says; even his earthship, which harvests rainwater and runs on solar power, was built using money he made trucking crude oil. When 16 parcels near his Cebolla home went up for auction, he decided to embrace that paradox.
"It got me active, to have that right in my backyard, because some of the parcels were within half a mile of our house," he says. "And it's been good action, because they're not drilling in Cebolla."
He has fought the eastward expansion of oil and gas leases that pushed into the Santa Fe National Forest, closer to wilderness areas around the Rio Chama gorge and to Santa Fe.
Given his experience working in the industry—days that ended more than 30 years ago after a spill led to one of his co-workers receiving third degree burns over 80 percent of his body—Clark believed that to live near that kind of development was to consent to a slow poisoning. They would become, as he calls it, collateral mortalities.
"I'd just been around too many spills and too much contamination to think that wasn't going to happen," he says.
The spills wouldn't be a problem for Cebolla alone, where the BLM's geological study reported a low potential to produce oil and a high chance for leaks. The Rio Chama Watershed is a main tributary for the Rio Grande, with 90 percent of the watershed adjudicated to the City of Albuquerque, several Pueblos and the acequia system.
"We're in a very remote, rural, wild area; it's some of the wildest country really left in the south San Juans. … [and] the area that we manage provides a third of New Mexico's drinking water. All the reservoirs down in New Mexico are getting fed from our landowners," says Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of the Chama Peak Land Alliance, which represents the interests of landowners in the Chama River Basin. Of oil and gas, DiGiorgio says, "Not here. This is not an appropriate place. It's too risky."
Calls for the BLM to administratively withdraw leases in Rio Arriba County have been met with the response that the agency isn't ready to make a permanent decision on those parcels, but they have been indefinitely deferred.
Rio Arriba's residents have slowed oil and gas development—past the 11,600 wells clustered on the western side—by arguing the science, Clark says. The geology is on their side, and a local ordinance also helps. Like Santa Fe County, Rio Arriba County benefits from a firm oil and gas development ordinance. Rio Arriba's halves the county, so that on the west, oil and gas can develop, and on the east, a "frontier" designation strives to preserve a wilder character. That would change, however, if the state legislature were to pass a bill like one proposed last year to give state law pre-emption on all matters related to oil and gas. The bill was proposed by Rep. Nate Gentry (R-Albuquerque), whose top five campaign contributors in both 2012 and 2014 include oil and gas companies.
A Nation Left Open
The vast majority of public lands, including areas like eastern Rio Arriba County that have a relatively low potential for profitably producing mineral reserves, are left open to leasing for oil and gas development, according to a report from The Wilderness Society.
"A lot of problems flow from that because if you're leaving 90 percent of minerals that you manage open to lease, it's difficult to say we're going to protect the surface for wildlife or recreation," says Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center for The Wilderness Society and author of that report. That high availability and little active management enable speculative leasing, as in, securing rights to minerals there is only hope that market prices and technology may some day make profitable to extract.
"Then we get the agency saying, 'Oh, well, now there's a lease, so we really can't protect anything there,'" Culver says. "So you're in this crazy loop."
The fiscal benefit to the federal government of those leases is minimal, she adds, and all they achieve is limiting recreational users' access to the land.
The BLM is amending its resource management plans, which it admits—at least in the Four Corners area—fail to account for the scale and pace of development seen since hydraulic fracturing became a widely adopted practice more than a decade ago. Now could be the time, Culver says, to preserve more places for their recreational, wilderness or cultural values.
Despite stating a policy of reducing climate change-causing emissions from the US by up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the Obama administration has continued issuing leases to extract fossil fuels. The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth analyzed the reserves already leased on public lands and oceans and found that those leases contain enough fossil fuel that burning all of them will make that goal impossible. Crude oil reserves already under lease will produce through 2055, coal reserves through 2041 and natural gas through 2044.
"The accusation that the environmentalists want to just switch overnight is pretty ludicrous. … Environmentalists are not asking you to turn off the lights," says Rebecca Sobel, with WildEarth Guardians. "We're demanding a ratcheting down of this program, which starts with ending new leases."
In the midst of this development are the communities where it unfolds, and in many cases, they, like Pinto, simply want more information and a little more say in how development unfolds.
"We know a lot about the industry, we know a lot about the high-profile environmental movement, and we know very little about the middle ground, the frontline communities, and they're in between the two," says Cristobal Valencia, assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of New Mexico, who has studied these communities.
"Social justice would mean allowing them to strike some sort of balance where they're going to be able to stay in the region and thrive, rather than face further loss and dispossession through either a ban in the name of the environment or the contamination of the land and water by opening the doors to unregulated oil and gas development," Valencia says.
These residents often aren't as concerned with preserving pastoral landscapes as they are with creating options for younger generations to stay there and make a living. Local control over where and how oil and gas activity occurs doesn't equate to banning fracking, he says. It could mean asking that some revenue be directed back to the county, a certain number of locals be hired, or road repairs or safety measures be required.
"The more we can understand about the decision-making process that happens around natural resources, then what we are learning is something about how the future is made," Valencia says. "The more we can get regulatory agencies and government institutions to see local residents as future-makers, to see them as experts, I think the more hopes we have for some sort of a co-constructed future, rather than one that's dictated through a government planning process."