Nevada an unlikely stage for "Keep it in the Ground" protests

Published: Mar. 8, 2016 at 3:58 PM PST
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The crowd was sizeable and passionate. The banner underneath the Reno arch read "Keep it in the ground." "It" was fossil fuels. The crowd represented a coalition of environmental groups. Individually they were committed to one of the pressing issues of our time--global warming.

"It's vital," said Valerie Love of he Center for Biodiversity. "I mean this is the call of our times. In my opinion this is the most important thing we can do because the whole planet is at stake."

Downtown Reno may seem an unlikely stage for this protest, and it was, but what drew these people here was a scheduled auction of leases of public lands in Nevada for gas and oil production.

"So we're telling BLM Nevada not to auction those off, to halt all new fossil fuel leasings on public lands."

Actually these auctions and the protests they draw have become routine in recent years. Neither side has much choice.

"The sales are actually mandated to do by law," observed Nevada Bureau of Land Management spokesman Chris Rose. ":So it's something we have to do."

Of course the actual target of the protest was three thousand miles east in Washington, D.C. Love was quick to admit this, pointing out the U-S won't meet the goals set by the Paris accords on climate change without reducing the use of fossil fuels.

No doubt the issues being raised are serious and real, but Nevada and all of its public lands present a low-value target for these protesters. There is apparently little gas or oil here to keep or pump from our ground.

The state's first oil wells date back to the 1950s, but production--never more than a blip on the oil market--peaked in 1990 and has been declining ever since. In 2015, the state's total production was less than 300-thousand barrels--a fraction of what a state like North Dakota or Texas would produce in a day. There's been little interest in looking for more and even less success finding it.

"A lot of the land that we've offered up for leasing in the past either hasn't been purchased or is not in production," says Rose.

In 2014 the BLM offered nearly a half million acres for lease during four auctions. Less than 90 thousand acres--18 percent--was actually sold. Presently, less than one percent of the land in Nevada leased for oil and gas exploration is actually in production.

And Tuesday, at the auction, the one that drew the protests, there were no bids, no sales. There may be real issues at stake here, but Nevada is an unlikely battleground for that struggle.