SALT LAKE CITY — In recent testimony before a congressional committee, the national head of the Bureau of Land Management mentioned environmental protesters in the same breath as armed militia, explaining why the public lands agency moved its Salt Lake City oil and gas auction to a larger venue.
The BLM also shelved its offices in Billings as an auction site in April, instead relocating the event to one of the most spacious and upscale hotels in the Montana city.
BLM's national director Neil Kornze said the agency is used to these oil and gas lease auctions being "quiet affairs" that typically attract 15 people in a government room.
Hundreds of protesters, riding the momentum of the Keep It in the Ground movement, changed that dynamic.
"A lot of difficulty we have had is adjusting to the level of public interest that has been brought to these lease sales," Kornze testified.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, questioned the agency chief during a hearing of the U.S. Natural Resources Committee, wondering at the "overaccommodation" of protesters at the Salt Lake City auction.
"I just find it interesting that a traditional practice conducted in a traditional place would be changed because of a press release a couple days in advance (that said) protesters intend to come," she said. "That sounds abnormal to me."
Kornze said interest by protesters has forced a departure from normal practices.
"We've also had an abnormal security situation related to some public agencies, including ours. We have had a situation where we have had militia, we've had people raising arms at different times," he said. "We are on heightened alert and we are concerned about safety. And so a situation that we are not used to — separating out who is a bidder and who is not — in a routine way, gives us pause."
Environmental groups around the country are stepping up the fight against fossil fuels, and particularly in Western states where the fervor over developing these resources on federal public lands has reached a new crescendo.
The groups believe the pressure they've put on the Obama administration led to the Interior Department's decision earlier this year to issue a moratorium on coal leasing. They're applying the same pressure on any new oil and gas development, urging it be banned from public lands.
The Keep It in the Ground movement's impassioned activities are also ramping up the tension.
At a Thursday agency-hosted event in Salt Lake City, the BLM's Ester McCullough was inches away from an angry environmental activist who said her free speech rights were being violated because she couldn't display her posters.
Two uniformed Salt Lake police officers were attempting to calm Raphael Courdray of Utah Tar Sands Resistance. Her complaints were getting louder, her face was flushed, and the confrontation was attracting attention at the informational meeting related to a potential oil shale project in eastern Utah.
After the exchange had ended, McCullough looked relieved.
"I am not a confrontational person," she said.
Around the country, activists have protested and rallied at a half dozen or more BLM oil and gas auctions, delaying and disrupting the bidding process by oil and gas producers, in some instances drowning out the voice of the auctioneer. Activists have marched in the streets of Reno, Nevada, and chained themselves to heavy equipment to stop site activity on an eastern Utah tar sands mining operation.
In Salt Lake City, acting on information that several hundred protesters were slated to show up at a November auction held at the BLM's state offices, officials postponed the event until February and held it at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Once inside, more than 90 protesters who broke into song and chants ultimately had to be escorted from the auction after they refused to quiet down.
"We need to maintain an orderly auction," said BLM Utah's Kent Hoffman, deputy state director over lands and minerals. "We want to do our job right, do it correctly and involve the public. When it comes down to a lease auction, that does not have anything to do with input. It is not designed to be a public hearing."
In October, activists crashed an oil shale symposium in Salt Lake City and began singing before they were escorted out. Hundreds are planning to attend a Keep It in the Ground protest next week at a BLM auction in Colorado.
Hoffman said it is a fine line the agency walks between accommodating the public and conducting its business — business the groups want to stop.
"To be perfectly clear we do solicit input through the National Environmental Policy Act process and the formal protest process," he said. "We like to hear all sides."
Protesters, however, may find a diminished stage with the BLM's move to online auctions, which were authorized last year by Congress. A pilot was held in 2009 in Colorado and by this fall, the agency hopes to hold a live internet auction.
"There's been research done that shows the overall participation and bid amounts are enhanced through the internet process," he said. "We've been desiring to move into the electronic world for years. It is more efficient for us and probably for industry, too, to participate in an online auction."
The BLM is under no illusion, however, that online-only auctions will deter protesters, who say ceasing fossil fuel production on the nation's public lands will prevent as much as 450 tons of potential greenhouse gas emissions from entering the "global pool" of pollution.
"We have been very active in showing up and helping to drive turnout," said WildEarth Guardians' Jeremy Nichols. "We are trying to bring the Keep It in the Ground movement on the ground in the West and deliver the message to the Obama administration that it can't continue to turn a blind eye to the consequences of fossil fuel development."
The Western Energy Alliance, an industry association of independent oil and gas producers in the West, has been tracking the activities of the movement, asserting groups are using paid protesters and coaching people on how to provoke arrests.
"One of their main goals is to stop leasing of oil and gas on public lands, just as they were successful in getting the coal moratorium," said the alliance's Kathleen Sgamma. "That clearly is their next big thing. A lot of activists got freed up after the Keystone XL (pipeline) was denied, so they needed something else to do."
Sgamma said if the protest movement was serious about getting the leasing stopped, its members would weigh in on proposed leasing through the agency's resource management plans, scoping meetings and public comment opportunities in environmental reviews.
"At each of those junctures, the BLM always takes public comments into account, and it will often pull lease parcels from sales based on substantive comments," she said. "But the protesters aren't interested in that. They are interested in grandstanding and the heroics of being arrested."
Mining and oil and gas from public lands provide essential basics of people's everyday lives, she added.
"It is juvenile and not realistic at all. They believe if we shut down oil and gas that suddenly renewables would blossom and we'd live this pristine life, but that is not borne by reality. Wind and solar are great, but they provide nothing for transportation or flight and they do not provide the feedstock for pharmaceuticals," Sgamma said.
WildEarth Guardians has also launched a billboard campaign, putting up signs last week in Salt Lake City and Casper, Wyoming, that urge helping coal miners and communities transition from coal.
The campaign comes in advance of what is expected to be a daylong, heated public hearing on May 19 in Salt Lake City on the BLM's reforms to federal coal leasing. Early this year, busloads of frustrated coal miners in Utah packed a government hearing at the Salt Lake library on plans to reduce regional haze outnumbering environmental activists with their own signs.
The war over coal has created its own movement of supporters, such as Friends of Coal West and a grass-roots organization called Make Coal Great Again.
With the Interior Department moving ahead on a three-year moratorium on new coal leasing, Nichols said it's time to transition.
"The last thing we want to see is the coal industry to collapse and everyone is left hanging," Nichols said. "If we can shut down a coal mine, we can help workers transition. We don't want it to be one and not the other."
On Friday, the Keep It in the Ground movement received some harsh criticism from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who said protesters aren't being realistic.
In an interview with the California's Desert Sun newspaper, she said the nation is not ready for such an action.
"It is going to take a very long time before we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels, so I think that to keep it in the ground is naive, to say we could shift to 100 percent renewables is naive," Jewell said.
Nichols countered that Jewell's statements show how out of step the agency is with the nation's climate objectives.