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Protesters Disrupt Oil And Gas Lease Sale At Superdome

Twice a year the federal government auctions off land in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration. It’s usually a pretty quiet affair. But on Wednesday hundreds of protesters marched into the Superdome to try to disrupt the sale.

These protesters had to get up early — the sale started at 9:00 a.m. Many of them came in on buses and planes from around the country. About 250 people laid out giant banners at a park near the Superdome and held signs that said “keep it in the ground.”

Cherri Foytlin drove from Lafayette with her daughter. She took the microphone as the crowd gathered, saying, “This is the beginning of a new day for the people of the Gulf of Mexico!”

Foytlin came with one goal in mind. “I’d like to stop these lease sales,” she said. “If these sales go through it’s going to lock us into a future of oil and gas extraction.”

She says the state can’t afford the way that more oil and gas drilling in the Gulf will harm the environment. The protesters picked up their banners, started to chant and headed for the Superdome. They hoped to stop the sale.

It was a whole different scene inside. There was a buffet spread out, with coffee, croissants, fresh fruit and yogurt. A handful of guys in dark suits milled about, catching up.

Credit Ryan Kailath / WWNO
A BOEM official read the bids as protesters chanted inside the Superdome Wednesday.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) manages the land underneath the water in Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and in Alaska. Spokesman John Filostrat describes it as, “the land that's owned by the American people underneath the water, offshore.”

The Gulf seabed is public land, but private industry is interested in the oil and natural gas underneath. BOEM leases those offshore plots so oil companies can drill wells and build platforms there.

Filostrat knew that the protesters were coming. When asked if there was any chance they could stop it, he said, “Zero. It's going to happen. The bids are already in.” He explained that the auction represented the process of reading those bids in public, but added, “We welcome the fact that there’s public engagement.”

Despite a sign saying disrupters could be removed, security let the protesters right into the room. Some of them even got on the stage. They danced and chanted and raised their fists, drowning out the reading of the bids.

It was not the easiest environment for doing business. BOEM officials read the bids over the PA system while protesters did their best to chant louder.

The oilmen were more amused than bothered, cracking jokes and taking pictures. But the sale went on as planned. Phil Gabbert was buying for a group of mid-size oil companies. He said he got what he came for, five leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Things wrapped up and the protesters stuck around. Anne Rolfes, of the group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, got onto the BOEM stage, saying, “The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has left the building!” The crowd of protesters cheered and sang as they headed outside.

BOEM had left the building because the auction was over. The activists did not stop the sale. But the industry didn’t have a lot to celebrate either.

Filostrat explained. “Today we only got 148 bids. Back in the heyday you're looking at up to 2,000.” He said that was due to the low price of oil. This turned out to be the smallest auction in twenty years.

“When companies go out to look for oil and gas it's an expensive process, it’s a very long and tedious process, and it’s a very dangerous process. So the likelihood of company spending millions and getting nothing in return is there,” he explained. “There’s a big chance that it will just stay in the ground.”

Through no action of their own the protesters might actually be getting what they want. More oil is going to stay in the ground, for now.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. 

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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