By Rebecca Santana
Protesters opposed to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico disrupted an oil and gas lease sale Wednesday, chanting and waving signs as government officials read bids from companies for the right to explore and develop fossil fuels offshore.
Government officials said afterward that the sale — for tracts in the central and eastern regions of the Gulf — raised a total of $156 million in the central region but no bids were made for the eastern region. The $156 million was the fourth lowest total for sales in the central region — traditionally the Gulf’s most active territory — since sales started back in 1983, officials said.
Oil and gas companies have been struggling with low prices. Government officials called the sale results respectable but said the price of oil and gas is influencing companies, which are slowing down on capital investments.
“I think industry is proceeding cautiously,” said Janice Schneider, assistant secretary at the Department of Interior.
Schneider said the protesters did not hold up the sale, she had no concerns about the demonstrations and that everyone has the right to express themselves.
About 150 protesters, holding signs that said “No new leases” or “No Drill, No Spill,” marched into the room where the sale was held Wednesday, staying until it was over. As a government official read aloud the bids from a microphone, the protesters chanted “What’s the solution to pollution? Keep it in the ground!”
The audience of mostly oil and gas company employees and executives in suits looked on, sometimes pulling out their phones to take videos or photos of the protesters.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management offered about 45 million acres for exploration and development. Companies submitted bids in advance to the agency, which announced the results at the sale held at the Superdome.
The demonstrators were calling for an end to leasing of public lands for oil, gas and coal development, part of a nationwide movement that has targeted similar government auctions around the country in recent months.
Monique Verdin, an activist from Kenilworth in St. Bernard Parish, listed off the environmental problems she said were associated with oil and gas development along the Louisiana coast and said for a long time people in south Louisiana have been silent about problems associated with one of the region’s biggest employers. She said she hoped the protest would inspire more people to join them.
“We came here to make a statement and we definitely have,” she said.
The groups also are calling for the oil and gas industry to hire 1,000 workers to repair the industry’s aging infrastructure, said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. But she said that for the long term, the country shouldn’t be looking toward fossil fuels at all.
“We really need to be pivoting toward renewables,” she said. “We’re going to be left with a dead industry.”
Many industry executives and employees who were in the audience said the protesters have the right to demonstrate, but said they didn’t think many had any idea of how intertwined oil and gas use is with people’s everyday lives.
Benjamin Waring, who owns an oil and gas consulting firm, said wind and air energy sources can’t produce anywhere near what the nation needs.
“This country needs fossil fuels. I think that anybody who doesn’t think that is in denial,” he said.
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an industry lobbying group, questioned why the protesters weren’t kept farther away from the sale — inside of being allowed to shout inches from where the bids were being read. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are directly tied to the oil and gas industry, he said, and he questioned how the protesters could both oppose oil and gas development while using cars or planes to get to the protest.
Speaking of the results of the sale, Luthi said the organization had expected a fairly small sale. He blamed both current low oil and gas prices and uncertainly over possible future government regulations.
“Companies just don’t have the cash to be spending on leases that you make not see any production on for five, seven or ten years,” he said.