Momentum Builds Against Obama Admin Plans To Auction Oil and Gas Drilling Rights In Gulf of Mexico

Hundreds of Gulf Coast residents are expected to join a coalition of environmental and social justice groups on Wednesday to protest outside the Superdome, where the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) intends to auction off leases for offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Forty-seven organizations sent a letter to President Obama last week calling for him to cancel the planned lease auctions that would release millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. The sales include 43 million acres set to be auctioned on Wednesday, and another 47 million acres proposed for auction in 2017. 

Only two people spoke at BOEM’s public hearing in New Orleans on March 17 on the bureau's proposed plan to offer 47.41 million acres to the oil and gas industry to lease in the Central Planning Area of the Gulf of Mexico in 2017.

BOEM representative Caryl Fagot told DeSmog after the public hearing:  “This was the place for people to voice their opposition to new leasing, not at the auction itself, when it is too late.”

BOEM makes a presentation at a public hearing in New Orleans. ©2016 Julie Dermansky
Though the Obama Administration recently took the Atlantic Coast out of its 2017-2022 plan for offshore fossil fuel development, it proposed three leases for the Arctic and ten for the Gulf of Mexico.

Fagot pointed out that those who missed the hearings on proposed lease sales in the Gulf to take place in 2017, have until May 2 to send in their comments.
The two speakers who testified were Anne Rolfes, the director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Monique Verdin, member of the United Houma Nation tribe and a Gulf Coast liaison of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Both called for no new leasing in the Gulf. New drilling puts the region at risk for another oil spill and any oil recovered, when burned off, will contribute to climate change. 

Video: Monique Verdin Speaks at BOEM’s Public Hearing in New Orleans.
Rolfes thinks BOEM did a bad job getting the word out about the March 17 meeting because many area residents oppose expansion of offshore drilling operations. She became aware of the hearing only two days prior, after finding a public notice in a local weekly newspaper.
BOEM defended its public hearing notification process, stating it ran ads in local newspapers and posted the information on the bureau’s website. But BOEM representatives admitted its last two hearings were not well attended. There was only one person at one event, and at another, no one showed up at all. 

Video: John Filostrat, a BOEM public affairs officer, explains the new agencies created to replace the Minerals Management Service after the BP oil disaster. 
BOEM is one of three agencies created by the Obama Administration to replace the Minerals Management Service, after it was determined the regulatory agency was ill-equipped to prevent or deal with the BP oil disaster. The bureau is responsible for environmental studies and managing new leases on the outer continental shelf. 
The other two agencies are the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR). BSEE is responsible for safety and environmental regulations on all offshore energy developments, and ONRR collects royalties from oil and gas produced on federal property. 
An environmental activist at the March 17 hearing voiced his concern about the BOEM plans to lease in 2017. He said leases are in waters that are double the depth of the waters where the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred, and asked BOEM how the bureau would get a similar incident under control in much deeper waters.

“It would be difficult,“ a BOEM representative conceded. 

Vessels at the site where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leading to the 2010 BP oil disaster. ©2010 Julie Dermansky
“We take unknown environmental damages into account in our work,” Beth Ord, a biologist with BOEM, told DeSmog. However, despite the incomplete scientific data on the impacts of the BP blowout, it is BOEM’s job to determine the feasibility of new projects in the Gulf, and make sure that if new drilling takes place, it is done safely. 
“The Gulf of Mexico has been devastated by negligent oil companies and continues to be plundered for profit,” said Ruth Breech, a senior campaigner at Rainforest Action Network at a press conference before BOEM’s hearing. Breaking up the regulatory agency doesn’t change her stance that the oil should be left in the ground. 
Organizers of the upcoming Superdome protest hope they can build on the momentum created by the national Keep It in the Ground movement’s direct actions to block federal auctions of drilling rights on public lands across the country. 
“The people in the Gulf Coast are finally waking up to the utter destruction of handing over our Gulf of Mexico to Big Oil. Oil spills, a destroyed coast and seafood in peril is what has come from drilling over the last fifty years,” said Rolfes, who is working with the Rainforest Action Network and other groups to stop the auction on 23 March.
Rolfes acknowledged that many jobs in Louisiana are connected to the oil and gas industry, making her stance a touchy subject in Louisiana. But she believes new job opportunities can be created to restore the coast and build renewable energy sources. 

“In a chilling foretelling, BP nicknamed its own Deepwater Horizon oil drilling lease ‘Macondo,’ the cursed town of mirrors in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, and the story of generations doomed to repeat history,” Janet MacGillivray, Esq., with Indigena, wrote in a press release. MacGillivray’s organization is involved with the programming including seminars and films that is taking place in the days preceding the auction.

Josh Fox, the producer and director of Gasland and Gasland 2, will screen his film How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, at the Joy Theater on 21 March. All of the events are free and open to the public. 
The information presented at BOEM’s public hearing is on the bureau’s website. Public comments on the proposed 2017 leases can be made by email until May 2.
Lead image: Anne Rolfes, the director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Monique Verdin, a Gulf Coast Liaison for Indigenous Environmental Network, and Ruth Breech, a senior campaigner at Rainforest Action Network at a press conference held before BOEM’s public hearing in New Orleans. ©2016 Julie Dermansky