BLM auctions drilling rights to Pawnee National Grasslands

Lakewood — Inside the Bureau of Land Management office Thursday, a fast talking, cowboy-hat-wearing auctioneer did quick work: In three hours, buyers had purchased 93 percent of nearly 90,000 acres up for sale for oil and gas drilling, most within the Pawnee National Grassland.

Outside the auction, scores of protestors with signs, chants and songs, implored the government agency to “Keep it in the ground.”

Dozens of passing cars honked in support of the protest, which failed to stop the auction where gas-and-oil money flowed.


With a $2 per acre minimum bid and average bids less than $60 per acre, the sale netted $5,021,931.

“It’s a form of insanity,” said Phillip Doe, environmental director of the grassroots group Be The Change. “I mean, only a crazy man would put this together. Maybe a visitor from a small planet.”

Ruth Breech of the Rainforest Action Network agreed. “We have a climate change crisis on our hands. We don’t need to be burning more carbon. We don’t need more gas on the market right now.”

DSC02195The Rainforest Action Network joined several groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Coloradans Against Fracking and 350 Colorado, in organizing the protest. Six activists linked arms to block the public entrance of the BLM office.

Police on the scene ordered the protesters blocking the entrance to disperse, but they refused. Ultimately, the cops did not take action. There was another entrance and enforcing the order would be rife with jurisdictional complications: The office sits near the borders of three counties.

Not the first time

The Colorado BLM conducts oil and gas lease sales four times per year, but they rarely draw this much attention.

“For whatever reason, people have just picked up on this one,” said BLM spokeswoman Courtney Whitehead. She admitted, however, “Usually we are not auctioning off this many parcels.”

It’s not just the number of parcels but their location that has opponents fired up.

“It’s because it’s in a national park and grasslands,” Doe explained. “The shortgrass prairie is almost nonexistent. We’ve plowed it all up… And now we’re letting the oil and gas industry destroy what’s left.”

The price, too, is contentious. The minimum bid of $2 per acre has not increased since it was established under 1987 reforms to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. The 12.5 percent royalty rate has never been updated. That means oil and gas developers are often leasing land for much less than market value.

“Imagine what the present worth of it is,” Doe said.

Jonathan Lockwood, executive director of Advancing Colorado, criticized the protest. “Coloradans have no interest in extremist groups from out-of-state coming here and rioting against energy production that keeps our lights on, and powers our economy,” he said in a statement. He called the groups “callous” and “extreme,” adding, “Thankfully we have groups like Energy In Depth standing up to radical groups like the ones invading Colorado today.”

Energy in Depth’s Colorado director, Randy Hildreth, supported the auction. “I think that increasing development of shale reserves is great for the country. It’s been great for the state. It creates a lot of jobs.”

Aaron Johnson of Western Energy Alliance said that the lease sale will streamline the drilling process, leading to fewer wells drilled. “When you have your oil pad on private land and you’re trying to drill your horizontal well…and you run into federal minerals, you have to stop or you have to work around that, which means you’ll have to have more well sites,” he explained.

DSC02191But Doe argued that fewer wells drilled doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller impact. “That’s a talking point for the oil and gas association, that the footprint is less, but that’s really a lie. These things are huge.”

Johnson also criticized activists for the materials used in the demonstration, pointing out that their signs, microphones and cell phones all relied on fossil fuels. When asked about the specifics of the auction itself, he declined to comment.

So what’s next?

Winning bidders don’t get to start developing immediately. Lease holders must apply for a permit before drilling can occur. Permits are granted subject to a public planning process, “requiring site-specific analysis and public comment,” according to the BLM website.

But protesters like Russell Mendel say such regulations are not enough. Current oil and gas reserves contain more than enough carbon to irreversibly affect the Earth’s climate.

“We know that we have five times as much fossil fuel currently within reserves of companies and countries than we can plausibly burn without going over 2 degrees Celsius,” said Mendel, who is involved with several state anti-fracking groups. “If we’re serious about really making an impact and stopping the climate crisis, we need to keep it in the ground.”

Ultimately, the protest was about a larger fight, not just Thursday’s auction.

“What brought me out here is a sense of love, a sense of love for the communities of this world that are battling fossil fuel extraction and the impacts of climate change,” Mendel said.

Rainforest Action Network’s Breech was optimistic about the turnout. “This is just a small testament of showing how many people really care about this issue,” she said.

The BLM’s next lease sale is scheduled for February 11, 2016. Public protests against the sale will be accepted until December 14. More information is available here.

All U.S. citizens over the age of 18, provided they pay what they bid, can bid in lease sale auctions regardless of intent to develop.