Commentary: BLM is auctioning off our future

Josh Ewing | Friends of Cedar Mesa Crews drill an oil well on Cedar Mesa in 2014 on public land that later became part of Bears Ears National Monument. The well turned up dry and the federal lease was retired. But a review of BLM documents indicates industry has "nominated" numerous parcels in the area around Bears Ears Buttes, pictured in the distance, for oil and gas development despite claims by Utah officials that Cedar Mesa is under no threat of energy development.

While climate leaders gather in Poland for COP24, the 24th annual global climate summit, the Bureau of Land Management will ignore the warnings of science and conclude 2018 by leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands for fossil fuel extraction.

On Dec. 11, the Utah Bureau of Land Management will auction more than 150,000 acres to the oil and gas industry. The December auction will top off a year in which we already saw the largest lease sale since the Bush administration. In total, the Utah BLM will have offered over 420,000 acres in 2018.

The agency’s prioritization of fossil fuel extraction is immoral and irresponsible in the face of climate crisis. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that says society must transition off fossil fuels in the next 12 years to prevent catastrophic warming. The National Climate Assessment, which the Trump administration tried to release quietly on Black Friday, predicts a devastating future for the U.S., including mass wildfires and dramatic decreases in crop yields.

Projected megadrought for the Southwest has already hit Utah, as 2018 was the state’s driest year on record. Foreseeing this crisis in late winter, Gov. Gary Herbert responded by asking faith leaders to pray for snow. We need more than prayers. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Taking action to prevent climate catastrophe must include an immediate end to fossil fuel leasing on public lands. A recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey — also released on Black Friday — says that fossil fuels extracted from public lands contribute to one-quarter of U.S. carbon emissions. By ramping up extraction on public lands, the BLM is not just selling land; it’s selling my generation’s future.

While sacrificing our future, the BLM also has made it increasingly difficult for the public to comment or participate in the auction process. In 2016, the BLM moved the leasing process online to prevent the public from protesting the auctions in person. Since then, public participation has been increasingly eroded. For the December auction, the BLM failed to hold a meaningful or adequate public commenting period. The official “protest” period was shortened to 10 days and includes prohibitive requirements. To write a letter, one must represent an official organization, fax or hand deliver the letter, and reference specific parcels. Most young people aren’t part of official organizations and we don’t have issues with single parcels—we oppose the entire process.

By ignoring science and failing to provide accessible ways for people to voice their concerns, the BLM has acted in service of the fossil fuel industry above all else. Rather than finding a pathway to transition off fossil fuels, the BLM has sacrificed unprecedented acreages of public lands for oil and gas extraction. It is taking us backward while accelerating the warming of our climate at a deadly pace.

However, the agency’s attempt to silence the public and sell away our future behind closed doors will not succeed. We already saw some success with the December 2018 sale. A lawsuit challenging the BLM’s oil and gas leasing in greater sage grouse habitat led to the removal of 174,986 acres from December’s original 329,212-acre sale. These parcels have been moved to the March 2019 sale, but the public will have increased opportunity to comment thanks to a preliminary injunction that forces the BLM to hold 30-day public commenting and administrative protest periods.

The actions taken on our public lands will determine the health and safety of the current generation and all generations to come. We deserve a livable future.

Brooke Larsen

Brooke Larsen, Salt Lake City, is organizer of Uplift, a youth-led movement for climate justice on the Colorado Plateau.