In Utah, 'Possible Turning Point' in Fight to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground

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In Utah, 'Possible Turning Point' in Fight to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground

Facing public uprising, the US Bureau of Land Management postpones auction of 73,000 acres of publicly owned oil and gas resources in Utah

"Climate activists, members of Congress, Indigenous leaders and others are all coalescing around the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to prevent catastrophic climate change," says 350.org's Jason Kowalski. (Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Twitter)

Where environmentalists expected to protest on Tuesday morning, they celebrated instead, after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) handed down an important—if temporary—victory in what has been identified as "one of the next big climate fights."

Dozens of citizens were planning to protest a federal oil and gas lease auction on Tuesday morning in Salt Lake City, as part of the growing movement calling on the federal government to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

But late Monday, citing "the high level of public interest," the BLM postponed the auction of 73,000 acres of publicly owned oil and gas resources in Utah—which harbor an estimated 1.6-6.6 million tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution.

In turn, the protest turned into a party. Among the groups celebrating was Elders Rising for Intergenerational Justice, an action group calling on the BLM to act to prevent catastrophic climate change and to ensure a livable future for generations to come.

"It has been said that when the elders rise up, it is a real crisis," said Kathy Albury of Elders Rising in a statement on Tuesday. "Well, here in Salt Lake City the elders only needed to talk about rising to protest the leasing of our public lands to fossil fuel companies, and thousands of acres have been saved from destruction."

However, the win is not total—and it's just temporary. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, BLM officials still plan to auction the rights to drill 39 parcels covering 37,580 acres of public land, about half the acreage the agency initially intended to lease.

As such, groups like Elders Rising are "making plans to be at the rescheduled auction," Albury said, where "[w]e will be bidding for the preservation of our wild areas to slow the progress of climate change and provide a livable future for our children and grandchildren."

Responding to the development in Utah, 350.org policy director Jason Kowalski said "the protests in Salt Lake City are just the beginning" of what he called "one of the next big climate fights."

"Climate activists, members of Congress, Indigenous leaders and others are all coalescing around the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to prevent catastrophic climate change," Kowalski said. "That's especially true on federal lands—our public property should be used for the public good, not climate destruction. Peddling fossil fuel leases ahead of the Paris climate talks is like handing out cigarettes before keynoting a conference on lung cancer."

And Monday's decision "is a possible turning point" in that larger fight, argued Tim Ream of WildEarth Guardians.

"Earlier this year the Utah BLM office was denying that climate change was even happening," he said. "Today, they heard the huge uproar of people across the U.S. and responded in a way we can all be proud of. If we all push hard enough this next year, the end of federal coal, oil, and gas leasing might be just around the corner."

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