BLM Moves Onshore Oil and Gas Lease Auctions Online To Stymie ‘Keep It In The Ground’ Protests

Jerri-Lynn here. This short post highlights an important problem that we’ve seen arise over and over again with the administration which pledged to be the most transparent ever: the disconnect between public rhetoric and behind-the-scenes practice.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) presides over the allocation of oil and gas leases on federal lands. These procedures have long been corrupted by conflicts of interest and sweetheart deals for not only fossil fuel producers but other extractive industries. This post is well-researched and well-sourced, particularly in tracing the web of connections between insiders on the public and private sides. One warning: Although I like to be able to delve into sourcing and see an author’s links to his/her own past work on a subject, I quibble with this author’s use of multiple repetitive links, often to the same source. I found this to be a trifle excessive, particularly in such a short piece. (It reminded me of a perhaps apocryphal law review article about baseball’s infield fly rule that started by dropping a footnote after each of infield and fly and rule.)

That being said, this post spotlights practices that should in a well-functioning democracy should not be conducted on-line, but instead carried out in an open public forum. The author quotes an industry lobbyist lauding the efficiency gains and avoidance of disruption that moving these auctions online produces. That occurs at a very great cost for it restricts the public’s ability to keep an eye on what the BLM and the industry are getting up to.

By Steve Horn, who is a Madison, Wisconsin-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog, contributing writer for NUVO and contributing editor for CounterPunch Magazine. He is also a freelance investigative journalist and sometimes-sports writer. He previously was a reporter and researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. Originally published at DeSmogBlog.

On August 30, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it would utilize Congress’ blessing, given to it in the form of passed legislation, to proceed with online bidding for oil and gas located on U.S. public lands.

The industry push to make online bidding the norm — as opposed to standard in-person, oral bidding — began with a fervorous pitch in 2009 in reaction to the “Bidder 70” civil disobedience action of activist Tim DeChristopher at an auction in Utah. It has culminated seven years later in reaction to another movement, this one involving the U.S. environmental movement at-large and not just a single person, otherwise known as the Keep It In The Ground campaign.

Back in 2009, citing DeChristopher indirectly in a U.S. Department of Interior Office of Inspector General report, the BLM oversaw an online bidding pilot project to test out the internet bidding technology of a company named EnergyNet. EnergyNet, which holds online bids for oil and gas in multiple state jurisdictions, has lobbied the federal government for over a decade to move toward online bidding.

PR, Lobbying Campaign

As of late, another industry-funded group — the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), of which EnergyNet sits as a member — has launched an aggressive public relations campaign to “end the circus” of protests outside of BLM oil and gas bids and move toward online bidding. EnergyNet will conduct an online-based bid for oil and gas on U.S. public lands on September 20.

“If protesters disrupt a lease sale, we suggest BLM hold additional auctions online within that same quarter,” WEA proclaims on its website. “Online auctions also have added cost-savings benefits as venues and security personnel do not have to be enlisted to handle potentially unruly crowds.”

WEA and EnergyNet share the same federal-level lobbyist, Tim Stewart, whose brother Chris is a Republican U.S. Representative for Utah. Their nephew Cody Stewart is an energy aide for Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert, who recently served as Chairman of the Interstate Oil ad Gas Compact Commission.

Furthermore, Spencer Kimball — a staff member on the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee — formerly worked for WEA as a Manager of Government Affairs. Tim Stewart formerly served as served as Chief of Staff for the House Natural Resources Committee.

In a press release, WEA lobbyist Kathleen Sgamma praised the BLM’s online bidding decision.

“We’re pleased BLM is moving forward with online oil and natural gas lease auctions to take advantage of well-established technology,” she said. “Transitioning auctions from in-person to online will enable BLM to meet its obligations under existing law, reduce administrative costs, and eliminate disruptions from Keep-It-in-the-Ground protesters.”

Offshore Bill, Dueling Lawsuits

Congressional legislation is also moving along which would push Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to transition to online bidding for offshore oil and gas in federal waters, again in reaction to Keep It In The Ground. In August, BOEM held its auction of 23.8 million acres of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico online.

“They are trying to hide from our movement,” Blake Kopcho of the Center for Biological Diversity recently told Earth Island Journal. “We have shown up at every BLM and BOEM fossil fuel auction over the last year since we launched this campaign. And I think the [Obama] administration really dislikes the attention that we are bringing to the fact that, in the emerging climate crisis, the federal government continues to offer up our public lands and waters for pennies on the acre to the most profitable industry in the history of the world to continue to burn fossil fuels.”

Physicians for Social Responsibility and WildEarth Guardians filed a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) lawsuit on August 25 against the BLM for not “properly analyzing, at the programmatic or project level, the ensuing direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts to our climate” the leasing of over 379,950 acres of U.S. public lands located in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, despite winning its push for online bidding for onshore oil and gas, WEA filed its own lawsuit two weeks earlier on August 11 against the BLM for not leasing off enough oil and gas on U.S. public lands at a rapid enough pace.

“Through protests and petitions, the Keep-It-in-the-Ground movement is trying to coerce BLM into violating the law by stopping all leasing on federal lands,” Sgamma said in a press release. “Yet without doing anything, activists could achieve the same goal just by leaving BLM to its own devices.”

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  1. Steve H.

    Another click on a Darwinian ratchet. The step indicates the protests were a successful tactic that had to be responded to.

    Perhaps the competing lawsuits will lock up the entire machinery.

    Backlash has a non-social meaning: the recoil backwards between the teeth of the ratchet. The bigger the step, the greater the recoil.

  2. rjs

    re the linking critique: i’ve used multiple links back to the same post when they support what i’m writing…i dont find it a problem, but then i dont expect someone to click every link in something i write either…i think when one is writing in a controversial arena, such as energy & the environment, it saves one from being challenged on something you’ve already established in comments…on the other hand, when one is writing about an economic report that revises a previous report, one link back to the older report suffices..

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I concur– but if you do click on each and every link, you’ll see what I mean. I only raised the point b/c I wanted to warn readers.

    1. diptherio

      My thoughts exactly. Move the auctions on-line to avoid disruptions? Someone hasn’t been paying attention…

  3. Katharine

    >“Yet without doing anything, activists could achieve the same goal just by leaving BLM to its own devices.”

    The way we used to? That sure worked out well.

    1. marym

      The federal Bureau of Land Management will boost permit approvals for oil and gas drilling on public lands 44 percent in 2011, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday.

      Salazar said the bureau, one of the agencies he oversees, is set to approve about 7,200 permits in 2011, compared with 5,000 in 2010.

      He also opened up Arctic drilling, and is pro-fracking and pro-TPP. As the WEA lobbyist indicated, the disruptions they hope to disrupt are those of environmental activists.

      1. sd

        Salazar as an adviser to the Clinton campaign, raises
        the question – so what’s in it now for the friends of the Clinton Foundation?

        FOC – friend of Clinton…might start using that as an acronym.

  4. Chauncey Gardiner

    Who gave these privately owned corporations the right to extract public resources at all, let alone for pennies on the dollar?…

    Good to see the writer mention the actions of “Bidder 70”, Tim DeChristopher, for submitting bids at a BLM public auction seven years ago. Recall that his courageous act disrupted another give-away of publicly owned resources to wealthy private interests in the waning days of the Bush-Cheney administration.

    I recall that DeChristopher was subsequently sentenced to a prison term of two years. During his incarceration, I recall the press reported that he was forced to spend time in solitary confinement at the initiative of an unnamed politician. Environmental activists are clearly regarded as “dangerous people”, although by whom and exactly why remain open questions.

    That incident, and DeChristopher’s subsequent treatment by government, clearly showed the nexus between privately owned oil & gas interests and government officials. With the “work-around” described in this post, it seems the underlying state of affairs hasn’t changed much during this administration. Wonder if those campaign contributions, revolving door jobs, speaking fees, book deals, etc. play any role at all?

  5. different clue

    It the BLM auction is on line, that means all the trolls in the world could troll it if they get instruction on how. And/or it means that all the DDOS-attackers in the world could shut the fucker all the way down, if they knew exactly which-all computer connections to overwhelm with DDOS attacks.

    I’m not saying they SHOULD. THAT would be illEEEgal. For the Record, they should NOT do it. Don’t do it, Trolls and DDOSsers of Planet Earth.

    I’m just saying they “could”, if they “wanted to.”

  6. Oregoncharles

    That’s Obama, no Republicans involved.
    Except the one in the White House, and apparently the one running the BLM.

  7. Synoia

    which pledged to be the most transparent ever

    The administration is the most transparent ever. The most transparently dishonest.

    Lawyerly parsing, just a Obama is a Constitutional Scholar, looking for loopholes to ram through changes (such as the sovereignty removing “Trade Treaties”)

    But, but, but Clinton will be better….(right)

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