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Oil and gas lease auctions going online; protesters look for venue

Nov 2, 2016 By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

The change could generate an estimated $2 million a year in additional revenue by encouraging more participation by petroleum developers who don't have to travel to Wyoming in person to bid.

CHEYENNE (AP) -- Activists may have protested their last federal oil and gas auction before such auctions go online but vow their "keep it in the ground" movement isn't going underground: They'll protest at U.S. Bureau of Land Management offices on auction days instead.

The BLM auctions off the right to drill on federal land in Wyoming and other states four times a year. The agency has begun transitioning to an online format for such auctions.

A BLM auction at a Cheyenne hotel Tuesday -- possibly the last to be held at a physical location -- offered yet another sign of tough times for the oil and gas industry. Only 21 leases were offered across Wyoming, down from a couple hundred at a typical sale during boom times a decade ago.

The auction adjourned more than three hours early but not before police escorted out eight protesters who were chanting and carrying signs. Such scenes have become routine at BLM auctions in Western states over the past couple years.

"Our message was really clear this morning. No new pipelines, no new leases," said Tess Geyer with the Rainforest Action Network.

No protesters were arrested.

Switching to online auctions will generate an estimated $2 million a year in additional revenue by encouraging more participation by petroleum developers, according to the BLM.

The change also will save the petroleum industry travel expenses, including gas, while removing a venue for disruptive protesters, said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, a petroleum advocacy organization.

Sgamma doubted the BLM intends to ignore protesters, saying the petroleum industry asked the agency to offer 140 leases at the latest Wyoming auction.

"It is very common for parcels to be deferred based on public input. That's part of the process," Sgamma said.

The BLM hasn't decided yet whether to hold Wyoming's next oil and gas lease auction in February online but BLM offices elsewhere have completed the transition, BLM spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt said Tuesday.

Participants will register to take part in the online auctions, another layer between the federal agency and protesters such Tim DeChristopher. The activist was convicted of two felonies and served 21 months in prison for driving up prices during a 2008 lease auction in Utah.

Still, demonstrators will find ways to make themselves heard such as by showing up at BLM offices on auction days, promised Geyer.

"Just by moving these auctions online doesn't mean people aren't going to be against what they're doing," Geyer said.

The Western Energy Alliance shrugged its shoulders at the possibility of more protests.

"If they have nothing better and productive to do, whatever," said Sgamma.

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