By Katie Valentine
Residents across the Atlantic coast got a win last week when the Obama administration chose not to include the Atlantic in its five-year plan for oil and gas development. But in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil companies have been drilling offshore for decades, residents opposed to oil drilling weren’t so lucky.
Hundreds of those residents — along with local and national environmental organizations — rallied at New Orleans’ Superdome Wednesday, where Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) officials were auctioning off oil and gas drilling rights on 43 million acres in the Gulf. The protesters, armed with signs and banners and chanting “shut it down,” marched to the Superdome and flooded the room where the lease sale was taking place.
Virali Modi-Parekh, a communications manager at Rainforest Action Network, said the protest was “unprecedented.” Groups have been protesting federal oil and gas leases on public lands over the past several months, disrupting and in some cases delaying the sales. The first of these disruptions came back in 2008, when environmental activist Tim DeChristopher bid on millions of dollars worth of lease sales in Utah with no plan to pay for them — an action that ultimately sent him to jail for 21 months. But this is the first protest organized around lease sales in public waters, Modi-Parekh said.
And, she said, now that the Atlantic coast is off the table for drilling — at least over the next five years, under BOEM’s proposed plan — the Gulf is where several environmental groups are setting their sights.
“The Gulf is the next front for this environmental fight,” she said. “[The protest] is in the spirit of protecting all areas — whether it’s the Atlantic, the Arctic or the Gulf — from extraction.”
The Gulf, it’s safe to say, has the most experience with the dangers of oil development. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion sent millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf, killing 11 people and creating an environmental disaster that scientists are still working to understand.
“Nearly six years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Gulf is far from recovered,” environmental groups wrote in a letter to Obama last week, urging him to cancel Wednesday’s lease sale. “Fish catches are still down by a third. Oil and dispersant chemicals continue to kill wildlife and impact their reproduction and development. The bottom line is that offshore oil and gas development comes with significant inherent risks that are nearly impossible to avoid or mitigate.”
The oil industry impacts communities on land too. Gulf coast residents — often communities of color — who live near oil refineries along the coast are exposed on a regular basis to the toxic air pollution emitted by these refineries. The EPA adopted new rules on air pollution from oil refineries in 2015, but environmental activists would prefer to see an end to the oil industry altogether in the Gulf.
“There’s no great win for ‘keeping it in the ground’ without the Gulf of Mexico,” Modi-Parekh said. When it comes to that environmental campaign — the push to stop the development of fossil fuels in an attempt to mitigate climate change — the Gulf can’t be a “sacrifice zone,” she said.
The protest, however, did not delay Wednesday’s sale. More than 24 oil and gas companies submitted 148 bids for the leases, which encompass waters off the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the International Business Times reports. As of now, there are about 4,400 active leases in the Gulf of Mexico under BOEM’s control.