Activists protest Nevada public land auctions for fracking

About two dozen antifracking protesters rally Dec. 9 outside the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Reno during the auction of oil and gas leases for energy exploration.
About two dozen antifracking protesters rally Dec. 9 outside the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Reno during the auction of oil and gas leases for energy exploration.
(Scott Sonner / Associated Press)

A coalition of activists on Tuesday protested outside the office of the federal Bureau of Land Management in Reno to decry an auction of huge tracts of public land for private oil and gas exploration that they claim damages the environment and guzzles water in a time of drought.

Wearing blue and carrying empty jugs to signify the loss of water, protesters said that auctioning leases on 189,000 acres of public lands in the state’s eastern reaches had angered Nevadans of all social stripes and politics to speak out against fracking, which they say threatens public health, wildlife and quality of life.

Fracking involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand or gravel into a well bore to crack open rock formations containing oil or gas. The precise formulations and types of chemicals used have been mostly kept secret by the industry, which says the information is proprietary. Activists say the process pollutes the aquifer beneath the drill sites, harming precious groundwater in a desert state.


In September, BLM officials announced they will begin auctioning off parcels in eastern Nevada for fracking leases.

On a cold Reno Tuesday, several dozen activists waved signs that showed their diversity, including ranchers, real estate agents and Native American leaders: “Nevada Is Not for Sale,” one read, while another boasted “Realtors Against Fracking.” One animal lover posted a sign on a pet that read “Dogs Against Fracking.”

“This is a very diverse coalition that has the potential to be politically powerful,” said Dan Patterson, public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the protest organizers.

BLM officials in Nevada said federal law allows them to hold four annual auctions for private land grants, adding that officials make sure no sensitive land is included in the lot.

Agency spokesman Chris Rose says that private firms nominate parcels of land for auction, suggestions that are reviewed by the agency. Some are removed from consideration, while others are put up for bidding. Even if a firm wins a bid, it still must present a plan to be approved by the BLM before work can begin.

“Just because somebody wins a bid on a piece of land doesn’t mean they can start drilling holes in the ground the next day,” he said.


In 2013, for example, some 4.2 million acres of public land were nominated by the industry for possible oil and gas leasing. After BLM review, less than 2% was actually offered for lease. Of that land, 81% of the parcels received bids.

But activists aren’t buying those numbers.

“Fracking is part of a larger problem, a problem where money trumps common sense and we jeopardize our precious water for a few dollars,” said Dawn Harris of Frack-Free Nevada and Nevadans Against Fracking.

Added Jennifer Eisele, a spokeswoman for the Shoshone Paiute Tribes and Duck Valley Indian Reservation: “Nevada tribes have a vested interest in protecting our ancestral homelands from being harmed by the oil and gas industry. It is our duty to protect our natural resources for the future existence of ourselves and descendants.”

A study released in September by the World Resources Institute found that extracting natural gas for energy from shale rock deep underground requires high water usage, but much of the world’s shale gas is in regions where water is already scarce, including much of the American West.

In Nevada, even some townships thirsty for water have taken a stand against fracking.

This summer, Lander County commissioners filed administrative protests over BLM’s sale of oil and gas fracking leases in Big Smokey Valley. The Lander County Water Board unanimously passed a resolution opposing any drilling or fracking in the Middle Reese River Valley, near Austin, because of threats to town water sources, Patterson said.

He said that 70% of Nevada still suffers from extreme drought conditions.

“It seems like the [BLM] is acting as a salesman with these auctions,” he added. “We need a more responsible partner in Nevada, one that doesn’t promote activities that risk water.”


He said the BLM removed several parcels from the auction that environmentalists had said were prime habitat for the desert tortoise.

But Tuesday’s auction went on as scheduled, with drilling rights on some parcels selling for less than $2 an acre.