RENO, Nev. — Concerns about potential future protection of the sage grouse scared off bidders for all but one of 97 oil and gas leases the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered at auction Tuesday for energy exploration across about 300 square miles of northeast Nevada.
Two dozen anti-fracking protesters rallied outside BLM headquarters in Reno against the drilling that likely would utilize underground hydraulic fracturing that critics say threatens fish, wildlife and Nevada's limited supply of groundwater.
But Patricia LaFramboise, chief of BLM's minerals adjudication branch, said concern about the potential federal listing of the greater sage grouse under the U.S. Endangered Species Act was the main reason only one of the six representatives of the oil and gas industry offered the lone bid for the single 473-acre parcel in Nye County at the minimum $2 per acre.
The identity of the lone winning bidder won't be disclosed until Wednesday. The 97 leases that went on the auction block covered more than 186,000 acres of northeast Nevada, from north of Austin to near the Utah border.
"This is how we anticipated it would go," LaFramboise told The Associated Press after Tuesday's 45-minute auction.
"Sage grouse is a huge issue here. We've removed a lot of the parcels for sale until the Fish and Wildlife Service makes its decision," she said. "The areas of interest have some serious environmental impacts."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide early next year whether to grant a petition by conservationists to list the bird as threatened or endangered, a move that could trigger significant new restrictions on ranching and mining as well as energy exploration on federal lands across much of the West.
"Today was a victory with only one small parcel of public land leased for drilling, but at a rip-off price of $2 an acre," said Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that organized the protest with a coalition of conservationists, tribal leaders and others.
"With our water at risk, and such little industry interest, why is the Obama Interior Department pushing fracking? BLM should cancel leasing plans in Nevada," he said.
Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations to free oil and gas.
Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist for WildEarth Guardians in Wyoming who filed a formal protest against the sale of all 97 leases, praised the BLM for scaling back original plans to offer nearly twice as many leases for an area covering more than 500 square miles with key habitat for sage grouse as well as a rare fish in the White River basin.
"Nevada BLM has done a really good job on behalf of sage grouse and on behalf of those rare spring fish," Molvar said. "They deserve a lot of credit for showing leadership on that."
But he and other critics said the use of fracking to get to oil and gas deposits beneath Nevada's high desert will continue to be a threat to water quality and quantity.
"Nevada's precious groundwater should not be sacrificed for short-term profits of corporations," said Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. "In our arid desert, groundwater should always trump oil."