By Greg LaRose
Environmental groups want President Barack Obama to halt oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and for the industry to immediately hire 1,000 new employees to address problems with energy infrastructure.
To bring attention to their cause, they hope to convince enough people on their side to meet at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on March 23 — the same day the federal government will open bids for its next Gulf of Mexico lease sale — and circle the stadium hand in hand.
Four representatives of the groups behind “Surround the Superdome” met with reporters just outside the stadium Wednesday (Feb. 3) to share their plans. Their objective is to get the Obama administration to enact a moratorium on Gulf leasing similar to the one he put in place in January for new coal mine leases on public lands.
They say it’s time for the oil and gas industry to recognize the growing momentum behind clean energy sources and address long-standing problems that carbon-based fuels have created, including global warming, air pollution, and coastal erosion.
“The oil industry doesn’t take the (coastal) problem seriously, even though they have acknowledged they are the source of the problem,” Ann Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. In addition to her group, 350 Louisiana, Care 2 and Vanishing Earth took part in Wednesday’s press conference.
The outlook for the oil industry in Louisiana and elsewhere has been tenuous in 2016 as the price per barrel for U.S. benchmark crude has been mired in the $30 range. An abundant domestic oil supply and increasing production in Iran have slowed existing Gulf drilling, leading to widespread layoffs among exploration companies and the firms that service them.
The March 23 lease sale is expected to provide a gauge of future interest in Gulf drilling, as any wells that are developed from these tracts won’t materialize for another five to 10 years.
With the current decline in Louisiana’s energy sector, Don Briggs with the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association said an end to Gulf leasing would only serve to further damage the industry. Such a move ignores the state’s role as a leading producer of natural gas, which he said is a cleaner fuel than ethanol and others that green energy advocates favor.
“Environmentalists and activists they have a job they do. I’m glad they work hard to do what they think is right,” Briggs said. “However, our country needs the energy we produce, and the energy that’s produced in the Gulf of Mexico is vital to our national security.”
Rolfes said the 1,000 new jobs being called for are intended to address outdated and dangerous conditions on drilling wells and at refineries. She referenced video of a damaged pipeline at the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge that was repaired with duct tape and plastic bags. Rig workers and welders whose jobs would be affected by a leasing ban could be transitioned to this type of work, she said.
Asked about the specialized engineering and technical drilling jobs lost, Rolfes said, “For that handful of jobs, we think that’s a fair sacrifice.”
She said any claims from the industry that jobs would be adversely affected are disingenuous because continuing layoffs demonstrate oil companies are more interested in sustaining profits than employment.
Aaron Viles, a grassroots organizer with Care2, said the leasing ban would not have an immediate impact, as existing rigs would still operate and previous leases could still be explored. The objective is to prevent drillers from accessing what the environmentalists said is the eighth largest reserve of carbon-based energy. They estimate 85 percent of the world’s fossil fuel is untapped — and should stay that way while the produced supplies are abundant and better alternatives are explored.
Briggs said the 1,000 new remediation hires fall well short of the workforce impact of a leasing ban, which he estimates would reach about 40,000 jobs, direct and indirect, tied to Gulf drilling.
Oil drilling should not be linked to the ban on coal leasing because Gulf exploration and production is expected to meet the energy needs coal was addressing, he said.
“We’re seeing a large switch from coal to natural gas for power generation across the country,” Briggs said. “Unfortunately for the coal industry, we have an abundant supply of natural gas.”
Besides serving as the lease sale site, Rolfes said the Superdome is symbolic because it was a refuge of last resort for New Orleans residents seeking shelter from Hurricane Katrina. If the energy industry fails to address its impact on the coast, the scenario could be repeated.
Jonathan Henderson with the watchdog group Vanishing Earth blamed oil and gas drilling for a slate of environmental concerns along the Gulf Coast, ranging from “shrimp with no eyes” and genetic mutations in marine life to coastal beaches and marshland spoiled with oil and contaminants. He said the fate of Louisiana’s coastline is too closely tied to the prosperity of the energy industry.
“We must end this vicious cycle that ties our coastal restoration dollars to drilling,” Henderson said, referencing federal offshore exploration royalties that, in large part, are expected to finance the repair of Louisiana’s wetlands.
The organizers ask anyone interested in participating in the March 23 protest at the Superdome visit nonewleases.org.