By Jennifer Larino
Yudith Nieto caught her second wind as she watched her fellow activists swarm the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to protest the Wednesday morning (March 23) sale of federal oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Nieto, a community activist and artist in Houston, drove to New Orleans on Tuesday and stayed up all night painting long banners for the rally.
Sleep can wait, Nieto said, straining to speak over the chanting crowd. That morning Nieto was focused on putting an end to the offshore oil drilling she says threatens the future of the Gulf Coast, its environment and the health of its people.
“I’m here to stand in solidarity with other Gulf Coast communities,” Nieto said. “We are the sacrifice zones, but we do not have a seat at the table when these decisions are made.”
About 200 protesters from New Orleans and across the country crowded into a meeting space at the Superdome seeking to shut down the sale, the ninth under the Obama administration’s 2012-2017 leasing plan. Federal officials still read out the winning bids, though it was difficult to hear them over the chanting crowd. A handful of suited men and women attending the sale sat taking notes, looking up occasionally to steal curious glances at the protesters.
Benjamin Waring, who owns an energy data consulting firm in New Orleans, stood at the back of the room speaking to a few activists. He has attended dozens of lease sales over his career. Never had he seen anything like Wednesday’s demonstration.
“There have been protesters before, but it’s usually only 10 or 15 people,” he said.
Waring said the protesters fail to see the big picture. He pointed to the cameras and iPhones many were holding to take video and pictures of the event as well as the cars used to drive there. Oil is used to make many of those products, he said.
“These people aren’t prepared to do without those things,” Waring said.
In the end, economic headwinds — not protesters — shut down bidding. The lease sale was the fourth lowest since 1983, attracting only $156 million in high bids, according to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management figures. The bureau received no bids for a separate eastern Gulf of Mexico sale also held Wednesday.
Janice Schneider, assistant secretary for land and minerals management for the Interior Department, said that companies are “proceeding cautiously” in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to tumbling oil prices. Prices have been locked in a historic slide, plunging from highs near $100 a barrel in 2014 to around $40 now.
Schneider was diplomatic when asked about the protest. “We respect everyone’s right to express themselves,” she said. “We are pleased we were able to proceed with the sale.”
Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the pro-energy Grow Louisiana Coalition, called the protests “short-sighted.” The energy sector employs 300,000 people in Louisiana and produces the petroleum used to make everyday items like ink, cosmetics, and coatings for medicines, he said. Offshore drilling royalties will be part of the funding used to restore Louisiana’s coast, he added.
“The oil and gas industry is Louisiana’s best partner for the economy and the environment,” Ehrhardt said.
Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and one of the organizers behind the rally, said fewer Gulf Coast residents share that view, especially after disasters like the 2010 BP oil spill.
She noted the Obama administration’s recent move to bar drilling off the Atlantic coast. She sees the decision as a pathway for phasing out drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re in a transitional moment,” Rolfes said. “We need to capitalize on this moment.”
For Nieto, who grew up in the Manchester neighborhood outside Houston a short walk away from refineries, the “old mentality” espoused by Ehrhardt is hurting the region. In her view, ending new oil drilling would make room for new thinking, for example, better ways to use the sun and wind to generate power.
Rolfes said she and the hundreds who gathered Wednesday are tired of “supplicating” oil and gas to be a responsible citizen. It’s time to be disruptive and to be heard, she said.
“It’s a new day in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.