Protesters gathered inside the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 16, during a U.S. Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases. [Photo courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity]

There’s a new energy developer in Grand County, but don’t expect it to begin drilling within sight of Arches National Park anytime soon.

When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held its latest oil and gas lease sale in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 16, Castle Valley author and activist Terry Tempest Williams purchased several parcels totaling just over 1,750 acres. One 800-acre parcel is within 14 miles of the park’s boundaries, but Tempest Williams’ company Tempest Exploration has no plans to develop the land.

Tempest Exploration’s high-profile bid came right around the same time that about 100 protesters disrupted the auction, bursting out into song at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The protesters belonged to a “Keep It In The Ground” coalition of activists and grassroots groups, who are urging President Barack Obama to halt all new fossil-fuel leases on the nation’s public lands and oceans.

In the past, environmentalists have disputed controversial oil and gas leases near exceptionally scenic areas and iconic landscapes like Arches. But protester and Living Rivers Green Riverkeeper Lauren Wood said the coalition hopes to reframe the debate about energy development on public lands by raising a “much bigger question” about the global impacts of fossil-fuel development.

“We should not be extracting any of this because it threatens our future,” Wood told the Moab Sun News.

The BLM said that its sale raised more than $314,000, with the highest bid of $120,000 coming from Turner Petroleum of South Jordan for a parcel administered by the agency’s Vernal field office. Altogether, the agency sold about half of the 45,700 acres it offered for lease before the auction came to an unexpected end.

BLM spokesmen Don Smurthwaite and Ryan Sutherland could not be reached for comment. But the agency said in a statement that its oil and gas leases are issued with conditions that are designed to protect the environment and other natural resources, such as surface occupancy restrictions and limits on the times of day when drilling can occur.

The BLM said that many legitimate developers routinely use the best management practices, such as directional drilling or remote monitoring of oil and gas wells, to further minimize potential surface impacts.

When a BLM official tried to determine if Tempest Williams’ bid is legitimate, as well, she responded that it is.

“You can’t define what energy is for us,” she said. “Our energy development is fueling a movement. Keep it in the ground.”

While Tempest Williams submitted her winning bid from the main auction area, Wood was stationed in what she called a “quarantine zone” for protesters. She said that her surroundings looked oddly familiar, based on the footage she’s seen of past auctions and other proceedings, including the now-infamous 2008 auction where activist Tim DeChristopher outbid energy developers on 22,000 acres of land valued at $1.7 million.

“It felt surreal to be back there, even though I’d never been there before,” Wood said.

The Obama administration later invalidated most of the 2008 auction’s results. But DeChristopher, who had no intention of paying for the leases, was charged with two federal felonies and was ultimately imprisoned for 21 months.

In a striking change of tone from those proceedings, Wood said that the BLM’s response to the protesters was calm, measured and respectful – even after protesters broke out into their “Keep It In The Ground” song for a second time.

“It seemed like they had no intention of blowing it out of proportion,” she said.

While officials asked the protesters to leave after the second outburst, no arrests were made, and Wood said she doesn’t anticipate that the agency will file any charges against protesters.

One BLM official was quoted as saying that he believes the protests serve a purpose by keeping the agency on its toes to perform a proper environmental analysis. Wood said she heard similar refrains from other agency officials who thanked the protesters for exercising their rights to attend a public auction.

“Everyone was very nice and appreciative of the fact that we were protesting,” she said.

She said it’s her understanding that Tempest Exploration will retain the rights to the parcels it successfully bid on, no matter how unorthodox its exploration techniques might be.

“We can continue to hold those leases as long as she is actively looking for oil and gas,” Wood said. “We could be using a divining rod and Harry Potter magic to try and find our oil.”

By protesting the auction, Wood said she hopes to change the minds of other bidders, and she’s curious to see if their message has any impacts on them.

“We’re inserting a very interesting conversation into the binds of these oil and gas bidders,” she said.

In the future, Canyon Country Rising Tide spokesperson Jane Butter said the BLM can expect to see a repeat performance of this week’s protest.

“We will be back every time,” she said. “With more people and more songs, we will continue to fight for a just and sustainable world together. Our movement, our power and our love will continue to grow until we see this all the way through.”

Protesters disrupt BLM oil and gas lease sale in Salt Lake City