LAKEWOOD — Hundreds of Leave It In The Ground demonstrators demanding a tougher response to climate change swarmed a federal public lands auction Thursday and set up a blockade to try to stop new oil and gas drilling.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials with police support moved ahead with the auction of rights to drill under 7,000 acres in western Colorado, penetrating the human blockade inside a rented Holiday Inn and enduring theatrics outside including use of bullhorns, loud music and a fog machine.
The anti-fossil fuel groups, led by Greenpeace and other environmentalists, also plan another demonstration Saturday in Thornton where hundreds of Front Range residents are expected to protest hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, near neighborhoods and schools.
"When you are in a hole, stop digging," said movement leader Bill McKibben, founder of the 350.org national coordinating group, who was headed to Denver, Los Angeles and Chicago to participate in rallies.
"We are in such a hole with climate change that we need, at the very least, to stop the expansion of the fossil fuels industry. We cannot afford to develop new infrastructure for fossil fuels. The next question has to be how to close down the fossil fuel industry we have got," McKibben said.
"It is just physics," he said, pointing to recent record-high temperatures, increasingly severe wildfires such as the one burning boreal forests in Canada, and accelerating melting of arctic ice.
"This is why there is this movement, not just in the United States but around the world, to keep fossil fuels in the ground."
The confrontation in Colorado was the biggest so far challenging regular BLM auctions, said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of the industry's Western Energy Alliance. Sgamma said she has asked the BLM "to get rid of this circus by just holding online auctions."
BLM officials "are considering it," spokeswoman Courtney Whiteman said. "It is just more efficient and quicker."
American Petroleum Institute executive director Tracee Bentley said blocking new oil and gas drilling "would completely overhaul life as we know it.
"Everything we wear and use, or nearly everything, is made from petroleum. We would have to give up our cell phones, some of our clothes, and certainly our transportation. To say there should not be more oil and gas is absolutely unrealistic."
Bentley noted natural gas increasingly fuels power plants needed to provide electricity. "Where would we find the alternative sources of electricity? It would be significantly more expensive."
The demonstrators converged just as the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday unveiled a new national rule to reduce emissions of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas linked to climate change, by the oil and gas industry. New limits apply only to future oil and gas facilities, weaker than existing Colorado rules that require companies to conduct infra-red inspections to detect leaks at existing facilities.
Methane air pollution from oil and gas still forms plumes above Colorado's Front Range that have been captured on aerial images by scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other Colorado-based science institutions.
The EPA rule will help set a national floor for limiting methane linked to climate change, said Dan Grossman, regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has played a lead role crafting compromises.
"There's no doubt that we have to transition to renewable fuels as quickly as possible," Grossman said.
"But in the shorter term, we can't afford to neglect the impact that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is having on climate change. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas and we can't sit idly by while it is vented and leaked into the atmosphere just because we would prefer to have an entirely renewable energy portfolio today. We have to be realistic and take advantage of important opportunities like this to make significant progress."
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the BLM, has acknowledged a need to shift off fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources as soon as possible. But Jewell has called the demands by the growing Leave It In The Ground movement to immediately stop new drilling unrealistic.
Demonstrators targeting the BLM on Thursday — numbering more than 250 who marched with banners and model drilling rigs across Wadsworth Boulevard to the Holiday Inn at noon — pointed to falling costs of producing wind and solar energy.
"In order to avoid a climate catastrophe, we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground," Frack Free Colorado member Razz Gormley said. "The BLM is selling off leases, and the Colorado state government is selling out Colorado."
The Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled that state rules promoting oil and gas development trump local rules designed to protect the environment and public health. But that ruling "is not a setback," Gormley said. "We expected that's how things would go, and we're taking matters into our own hands. We are going to change the state constitution to spell out that the peoples' rights are greater than Oil and Gas."
Front Range activists at the demonstration represented more than a dozen anti-fossil fuel groups including Colorado Rising Tide, Clean Energy Action, Be the Change, Colorado People's Alliance, North Metro Neighbors for Safe Energy, the Center for Biological Diversity, Colorado Community Rights Network, Clean Energy Action and Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development. Several are in the process of circulating petitions for ballot initiatives to bolster local power to regulate drilling near people and establish a mandatory 2,500-foot buffer zone between oil and gas wells and homes.
"We're going to change the DNA of our bill of rights. Corporations are controlling our government," Coloradans for Community Rights member Libby Comeaux said.
The demonstration Saturday in Thornton was to be held at a proposed drilling site near a school. And organizers said several hundred residents have indicated an interest in participating.