By David Hammer
At one point, protester Cherri Foytlin got on the stage where BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico Regional Director Mike Celata was unsealing and reading the lease bids from oil and gas companies. Superdome security guards tried to pull her back and she collapsed in their arms.
A strange detente emerged between the protesters and the police, and organizers told WWL-TV afterwards that they had worked to prepare law enforcement ahead of time for what they were going to do.
Some of the New Orleans Police Department’s top brass hovered by the stage and stepped in as a few protesters started shoving security personnel. But by in large, the protesters were far louder than violent.
A half dozen more eventually joined Foytlin on the stage holding signs and chanting, “We won’t be washed away,” “This is not your land” and “Shut it down.” They teetered on the very edge of the stage and security guards held them up so they wouldn’t fall.
After the lease sale ended and protesters filed out of the Superdome, WWL-TV asked Celata if he was worried as the protesters came within a few feet of him reading the lease bids.
“I was focused on reading the bids and completing the process and I think we successfully did that,” he said.
But with oil dipping back below $40 a barrel Wednesday, there was no sugarcoating the disappointing sale. Less than 700,000 of the 44 million acres offered to the oil and gas companies actually received any bids.
“I think the industry is proceeding cautiously; certainly that’s the case from everyone I talk to,” Interior Department Assistant Secretary Janice Schneider said. “I certainly think the price of oil and gas is influencing the decision-making process. We’re seeing a lot of companies slowing down on their capital investments.”
In all, there were just $156 million in high bids on 128 central Gulf leasing blocks, the 9-square-mile tracts that stretch hundreds of miles off the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. And there were no bids at all on the half-million acres offered in the Eastern Gulf, which the Obama administration recently opened to exploration.
The administration offered more acres for lease than it ever has, but Celata it received fewer bids than at any lease sale in the last 20 years. The $156 million in high bids is the fourth lowest for the central Gulf.
And yet, the industry’s highest interest Wednesday was in drilling deeper wells that make the environmental groups the most concerned. The highest bid of the day was $13.7 million from Venari Offshore LLC and Chevron U.S.A. Inc. for a single lease block in water more than a mile deep.
It was Mississippi Canyon Block 434, and it sits just 20 miles southeast of Macondo, the BP well that exploded in April 2010 and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
In all, 41 of the 128 blocks receiving bids – and eight of just 18 blocks that received more than one competing bid – are in water more than a mile deep.
Marc Ehrhardt of the pro-industry group Grow Louisiana Coalition said the protesters were loud, but a small group compared to those who need more drilling.
“Even though there seems to be a number of people in there, it pales in comparison to the 300,000 people in Louisiana who are working in and alongside the industry every day,” he said in a Superdome hallway as the crowd chanted behind him.
Retired Army Gen. Russel Honore, the Hurricane Katrina hero who now leads an environmental group called the Green Army, got a standing ovation from protesters when he entered the room for the lease sale. He said he understands the importance of oil and gas, both in fueling daily life and in putting Louisiana residents to work, but he said now is not the time to double-down on fossil fuel exploration.
“We have a lot of people in Louisiana who work in the industry, I’ll give you that. And right now, we got a lot of people laid off,” he said. “They’re laid off because oil is at ($40) a barrel.”
He said the federal and state governments are not doing enough to protect the environment, citing tens of thousands of abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf, including one owned by Taylor Energy that has been leaking for more than a decade.
“And now they want more of the land off the coast of Louisiana to be used for drilling? Hell no!” he said.
But Ehrhardt said the current glut of oil and gas doesn’t mean the nation won’t need more fossil fuel exploration in the future.
“What’s happening today isn’t about exploration for today, it’s about exploration for the future,” he said. “And in the next 20 years, the best economists in the field agree that the demand for fuel will keep going up.”