The Obama administration is fighting back against environmental activists and trying to blunt the impact of a massive campaign against federal oil and natural gas lease sales.
Greens have tried to disrupt auctions for drilling rights on federal land and in offshore waters. In response, the government is delaying or relocating lease sales and advancing plans to hold them over the internet to skirt the protests.
The fight is putting the Interior Department in the difficult position of defending the industry and congressional Republicans who back the lease sales and denouncing demonstrations from groups that have long supported the administration on other issues.
Both the government and drillers say the protests are turning the usually sleepy process of selling drilling rights into chaos.
In one high-profile action in March, hundreds of activists protested a pair of offshore auctions in New Orleans organized by Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, yelling over the bid information announcements.
“Unlike previous sales, these two had a large and disruptive group of protesters in attendance,” Walter Cruickshank, the bureau's deputy director, recalled at a House hearing this week on holding online auctions.
“The protesters ignored the posted rules of behavior, climbed onto the stage, damaged property and attempted to stop the lease sale,” he said. “Although no one was injured and the lease sale continued to a successful conclusion, the situation created a potential safety hazard for all present.”
The demonstrations are part of a movement dubbed “keep it in the ground,” largely led and organized by climate activist groups like 350.org and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Their ultimate goal is to stop fossil fuel production, and in the interim, the groups want the federal government to cease all new lease sales offshore and on federal land.
The movement got a major boost last year when President Obama rejected Keystone XL, declaring in part that, “if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”
That, along with last year’s Paris climate change agreement and a growing urgency over climate change, emboldened anti-fossil fuel advocates and increased their clout.
Their first major victory against a lease sale came in November, when the threat of bringing hundreds of protesters to an otherwise sleepy Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction in Utah spurred the agency to abruptly postpone the event and seek out a larger venue.
“We were surprised by the level of interest,” Neil Kornze, BLM’s director, said of protesters at a House hearing in March about online sales for the agency.
“Historically, these have been very quiet affairs, 15, 20 people, sitting together, conducting sales,” he said, noting that press releases instead had the agency expecting hundreds of people at that particular sale.
The agencies usually have public meetings for auctions, using a system that the industry and many lawmakers find outdated. BOEM’s is particularly quaint, with each bidder required to prepare bids in sealed envelopes, and an official announcing the winners out loud.
Interior says that it values the transparent, public nature of auctions for taxpayers’ mineral resources. But with ample opportunities to formally comment and object to sales, there are limits to how far officials want to let activists go.
Congress gave BLM authority recently to conduct online auctions, and it plans to start doing so this year for some sales. A bill from Reps. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) would mandate online sales for BOEM too.
Cruickshank said his agency already has the authority to conduct online sales, though it didn’t commit to them.
“To help reduce costs and ensure the safety of its employees and the public, BOEM is seriously considering the use of live streaming to provide public viewing of our next lease sale, scheduled for August,” he said. “Earlier this year, BOEM chartered an electronic bidding team to explore the use of an electronic-based lease sale process.”
Industry groups have been pushing for online sales for years. But the protests have made the lobbying more urgent.
“There has been some frustration with the disruptions that have been happening,” said Dan Naatz, head of government affairs at the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
“You can look at some solutions like online auctions that would not only be reasonable, but would make for a more robust auction system. If they can do that, it would make sense,” he said.
Naatz welcomed the push from the agencies to move toward online sales on their own, but was cautious about giving the Obama administration too much praise.
“They understand that they have a situation, they have a problem on their hands,” he said, noting that regularly occurring lease sales are required by law. “Nobody wants to have what happened down in the Gulf lease sale, where basically the protesters took over, that’s not a workable solution in any way, shape or form.”
Greens see online sales as a way for the industry and the administration to be less accountable to protesters. But they aren’t deterred.