Police arrest 13 at U.S. Interior Dept. oil, gas lease protest

September 15, 2016 5:56 PM EDT

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By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Police arrested 13 activists on Thursday who were protesting oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands at the U.S. Department of the Interior, the agency responsible for auctioning rights to drill.

The protesters from groups including Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network and Native American communities are part of a wide ranging "Keep It in the Ground" network.

The network has grown after a report published in the journal Nature in early 2015 saying 80 percent of the world's remaining oil, gas and coal has to be left in the ground if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided.

"We don't want any more lease sales in Alaska offshore," said Faith Gemmill from Arctic Village, Alaska, a place of about 150 Gwich'in Native Americans. "We see the impacts of climate change every day. The ground in Alaska is literally melting beneath our feet, communities are crumbling into the ocean and need to be relocated," she said.

The protesters had aimed to deliver to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a petition to stop lease sales that they say was signed by 1 million people.

U.S. environmental law provides for mixed use of public lands, including recreation and resource development.

Energy companies that drill on U.S. lands say they produce oil in a more environmentally friendly way than some oil that is produced in countries like Canada or Venezuela.

The threat of environmental protests has stopped or delayed several U.S. oil and gas lease sales at venues across the country this year.

The Interior Department will conduct an online lease sale on Sept. 20, a move the activists say was forced by their actions over the last year. The department "respects the right of citizens to express their views in a peaceful and lawful manner," spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said.

Besides protests of lease sales, Keep it in the Ground activists have also built a movement against the Dakota Access pipeline, a duct that would bring crude from North Dakota to the Gulf Coast states.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, has said she would be tougher than President Barack Obama on drillers on public lands. Her energy plan would raise fees and give renewable energy like wind and solar an even playing field with oil and gas to develop on the lands. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, wants to increase oil and gas drilling.

Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, one of those who got arrested, said environmentalists would hold Clinton, if elected, to her promises.

"We won't be afraid to hold her accountable, we will push, cajole, protest during the next four years. If we don't get what we want we can always support another Bernie Sanders-type challenger to emerge in the next primary," Pica said.

Senator Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the Democratic nomination, supports legislation to keep oil and gas in the ground.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Chris Reese)



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