May 9 2013 12:00 AM

Anti-fracking protesters disrupt DNR oil and gas land lease auction, no arrests

Anti-fracking protesters outside of the Lansing Center after a MDNR gas and mineral rights land auction. Sam Inglot/City Pulse

Thursday, May 9 — A gas and mineral rights auction of public land by the Department of Natural Resources drew the ire of about 40 anti-fracking protesters at the Lansing Center today. Several protesters were escorted out of the auction for disruptive behavior, but no arrests were made.

The auction was held to sell state-owned oil and gas lease rights to 37,000 acres of land in 27 Michigan counties. No land in Ingham County was up for grabs, but land in neighboring Jackson County was on the table.

During the auction, roughly 40 protesters filled the viewing area and many of them put duct tape over their mouths in a sign of protest. While the bidding was going on, protesters allowed their cell phones to ring numerous times to disrupt the auction process. Some began fake coughing fits to create additional noise.

The protesters believe that the land being auctioned off will be used for a controversial method of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process uses hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to break up underground rock formations that contain natural gas.

One of the demonstrators said the group had planned out the noise disruptions beforehand and had set their cell phone alarms to go off intermittently. About six demonstrators were escorted out of the auction by Michigan conservation officers for noisy and disruptive behavior, but no arrests were made.

For a video of protesters getting kicked out of the auction, click here.

After the auction, the anti-fracking demonstrators gathered in front of the Lansing Center for a press conference.

“We know that fracking threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we love and the climate upon which we all depend,” said Tia Lebherz, Michigan organizer for Food & Water Watch, an environmental group. “Fracking is not safe. Fracking is too dangerous, especially for somewhere like Michigan where we’re never more than six miles from a fresh body of water.”

There was one elected official among the ranks of protesters. Oakland County Water Resource Commissioner Jim Nash spoke at the post-auction press conference. He said future generations will “hate” us if we don’t turn away from fossil fuels and extraction methods like fracking and move toward renewable energy.

“I believe that this is wrong for Michigan. We sit in the middle of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water — we can’t be the ones that end up polluting it,” he said. “We will be hated for that. Future generations are going to look back at us and see what we did for their future.”

None of the protesters at the auction were arrested — which wasn’t the case at the last land auction in October where six people were arrested for disrupting the auction and for refusing to comply with conservation officers.

Ed Golder, a spokesman for the DNR, said the auction today was “relatively small” in comparison to other auctions. He said over the past 10 years, the auction has averaged about 91,000 acres. Despite the protests, the auction went “very smoothly,” he said.

Golder was asked if the DNR considered the risks that accompany fracking when auctioning land for oil and gas exploration.

“This is public land, so we’re very concerned that it be done in an environmentally sensitive way,” he said. “We trust very much our partners at the Department of Environmental Quality who handle the regulation of hydraulic fracturing.”

Brad Wurfel, communications director for the DEQ, said there are risks associated with any type of gas or oil extraction, but that fracking, with regulatory oversight from the DEQ, has been a historically safe procedure.

“I think the risk is there with anything. It’s something we’re highly cognizant of at the DEQ, we take a lot of pride in our regulatory program,” he said. “It’s kept the environment safe for decades and I think it will for years to come.”