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Terry Tempest Williams holds her bidder card at a BLM land lease auction in Utah in February 2016. (Photo: Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Feds: Only Those Committed to Destroying Planet Can Bid on Fossil Fuel Leases

In hypocritical move, Bureau of Land Management rescinds climate activist's federal land leases because she refuses to drill for oil and gas

Nika Knight Beauchamp

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Wednesday rejected land leases purchased at public auction in February by climate activist and author Terry Tempest Williams, refunding William's payment and revoking the leases because the environmentalist publicly vowed to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

"We are disappointed in the agency's decision to hold us to a different standard than other lessees," Williams and her husband, Brooke Williams, responded to the BLM's decision in a statement. "The agency claims that it cannot issue the leases because we did not commit to developing them. The BLM has never demanded that a lease applicant promise to develop the lease before it was issued. In fact, a great many lessees maintain their leases undeveloped for decades, thereby blocking other important uses of the lands such as conservation and recreation."

"We have made clear to the BLM that we would consider developing our leases when science supports a sustainable use of the oil and gas at an increased value given the costs of climate change to future generations."
—Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke Williams

Williams paid $2,500 ($1,680 plus a $820 processing fee) for 1,120 acres of federal land in rural Utah back in February as part of a climate action in which 100 environmentalists disrupted a fossil fuel auction, calling attention to the Obama administration's continued leasing of public lands for oil and gas drilling even as the climate crisis worsens.

"Our purchase was more or less spontaneous, done with a coyote's grin, to shine a light on the auctioning away of America’s public lands to extract the very fossil fuels that are warming our planet and pushing us toward climate disaster," Williams wrote in a New York Times op-ed in March.

The BLM is now reportedly refunding Williams the $1.50-per-acre purchase price, but not the processing fee.

Spokesperson for BLM's Utah office Ryan Sutherland defended the agency's decision, arguing in a statement that "Ms. Terry Tempest Williams of Tempest Exploration indicated on several occasions that the company has no intention of developing the two leases," The Desert News reports. "BLM, therefore, had little choice other than to deny the lease offers."

But Williams contradicted those claims:

Tempest Exploration Company met all the legal requirements of the leasing process. We bid on two leases for which there was no other bidder, so as not to prevent another party from acquiring a selected lease parcel. We paid the required fees. We have consistently stated that we would comply with the law and regulations governing management of the leases. We have made clear to the BLM that we would consider developing our leases when science supports a sustainable use of the oil and gas at an increased value given the costs of climate change to future generations. This is the same approach used by oil and gas companies that routinely base their exploration and development decisions on the price of oil and other market factors and often hold their leases for years without drilling.

Currently, there are about 20 million acres of public land under lease that are not being developed for oil and gas. The BLM has "suspended" many of these leases, meaning that the lessees no longer pay rent on them, although they continue to control the land. The BLM has been willing to extend these undeveloped leases in perpetuity, yet the agency put our bids under a microscope.

Williams' op-ed in the Times apparently prompted inquiries from the BLM into the activist's intentions regarding the leased land.

"Under federal law, any adult citizen of the United States may obtain and hold a federal oil and gas lease," the Salt Lake Tribune observes. "In August, the couple wrote to the BLM, saying 'requiring us to drill on our leases is a condition that is unique to us that does not apply to the others who purchased leases that day with no intention of drilling.'"

The newspaper describes the exchange that followed between Williams and BLM officials:

Not so, according to a letter the BLM's new Utah state director, Ed Roberson, dispatched Tuesday to Tempest Williams. The letter cites provisions in statute that require those who hold leases to "exercise reasonable diligence in developing and producing, and [they] must prevent unnecessary damage to, loss of, or waste of leased resources."

The author's expressed intent to not develop "would directly conflict with the diligent development requirement and require that the offer be rejected," stated the letter, which was signed by Whitlock.

Whitlock's letter, however, didn't address the Williamses' argument that the BLM allows leaseholders "who lack the means to drill [to] sit on leases waiting for a payoff that may never come," the Tribune notes.

"The BLM's decision to reject our lease bids highlights the agency's misdirected and antiquated approach to fossil fuels," Williams and her husband wrote, "illuminating their fidelity to the oil and gas industry while willfully ignoring the urgency—in an era of climate change—of more enlightened management of the public lands that belong to the American people. "

The activists say they are now considering filing an administrative appeal with the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals.


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