On May 17, I walked into a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction at the Salt Lake City Public Library with fellow organizers of Uplift, a climate action community for the Colorado Plateau. I witnessed police dragging powerful young women out of the room for peacefully singing in protest. After I started singing, I was soon escorted out of the room as well. Our words? “People gonna rise like the water, we’re gonna calm this crisis down. I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter saying, ‘Keep it in the ground!’”
Recently, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called the Keep it in the Ground movement “naïve.” But how can it be naïve to demand a livable future? I think it is even more unrealistic to believe young people will remain silent as our future is sold for as low as $2 an acre. We fully understand the significant challenges of a just transition away from fossil fuels. If we don’t demand that transition, we risk it not happening.
The protest in Salt Lake occurred on the tail end of global actions to break free from fossil fuels throughout the first two weeks of May. Many of the protesters in Salt Lake were part of groups acting to keep fossil fuels in the ground across Utah, such as Canyon Country Rising Tide and Utah Tar Sands Resistance. I left the protest thinking, this is just a small glimpse into the massive action that will occur if the BLM approves the right of way for the first oil shale project in the U.S. Break Free 2016 showed that it will not just be Utahns who rise up, but the whole world.
In early April, the BLM released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on an oil shale project in Uintah County. The proposed utility corridor for Enefit American Oil, an Estonian company, includes water, natural gas, and oil pipelines, powerlines, and an upgrade of five miles of road on BLM lands near the White River. As a millennial seeking to elevate youth voices alongside organizers of Uplift, I reject this climate disaster proposal.
To be clear, oil shale is one of the world’s highest carbon fuels. The project would compound climate change by emitting an estimated 450 million tons of greenhouse gases – roughly equivalent to 100 coal power plants’ yearly emissions.
Developing oil shale counteracts President Obama’s Paris climate commitments. If the U.S. is to uphold the Paris climate agreement, then the majority of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. Facilitating the extraction of one of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuels will effectively break the agreement the U.S. made to all citizens of the world. This problem is also local: extracting oil from shale is incredibly water intensive, increasing pressure on an already water-stressed Colorado River Basin.
As desert dwellers, our civic duty is to urge our leaders to break free from the dirtiest fossil fuels. With the June 14 commenting deadline for the DEIS fast approaching, it’s critical that we tell the BLM to reject Enefit’s application. Young people will not stand by while our government leases our future away.
For my generation, climate change isn’t just a technical challenge; it’s a spiritual crisis. How will we adapt to live in a world that will look different from all we have known? How will we cope with the hundreds of millions of climate-related deaths that will occur? The Keep it in the Ground movement is a cry for intergenerational thinking. It is a cry for restraint and compassion. This goes beyond any claims of naiveté: keeping it in the ground is existential.