I’ve seen Louisiana and the Gulf devastated and drowned after Katrina, and I’ve seen it in a froth of anger and confusion following the BP blowout and months-long Deepwater oil spill. When I asked one shrimper if the fishing boats that were deployed in BP’s cleanup were doing any good, he replied, “They’re just paying us not to riot.”
But I never thought I’d live to see hundreds of Gulf locals disrupting an offshore oil lease sale.
Last week, about one hundred people from Texas, Alabama, and around the nation joined 200 residents of New Orleans and nearby parishes to protest the lease sale of 43 million acres in the central Gulf of Mexico. The largest oil sale of the Obama presidency was taking place in the Superdome, once the shelter of last resort for thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees.
“We’re not a sacrifice zone, we are living, breathing people, and enough is enough,” said Hilton Kelley, the tall, charismatic founder of the Community in Power and Development Association of Port Arthur, Texas. Port Arthur is a petrochemical and refinery-heavy area also known as Cancer Alley.
“Now we’re letting them know we won’t stand by silently and let them destroy our way of life anymore,” Kelley said as protesters gathered in a small park near New Orleans’s City Hall. After a short, spirited march to the rebranded Mercedes-Benz Superdome the demonstrators made their way through security, up several escalators and into a large meeting room where the lease sale’s top bids were to be read off by the regional director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
At first, some of the 20 or 30 oil men (and a handful of women) scattered among several hundred plush blue folding chairs seem indifferent to the loud crowd marched to the front of the brown-and-grey-carpeted conference room, chanting, “They can’t wash us away” and “Stop the leases, stop the greed, give the people what they need!”
While a dozen security guards gathered by a far entry to the room, the government officials from BOEM acted as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. “Most of these people came here in petroleum-driven cars or jets. They know what they’re opposed to but have no solutions,” a man in a blue suit scoffed, before giving me the usual industry talking points about global demand for fossil fuel. I nodded and asked his name. “John Doe,” he half-grinned, before going back to his seat to review his printed list of bids on “Sale 24.”
Often lost behind banners reading “No Drill, No Spill,” and the feathered headdress of Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who traveled down from South Dakota where Native Americans are battling fossil-fuel interests, BOEM’s Mike Celata gamely read off the top bids for various leases. It was hard to hear him.
“Mississippi Canyon lot… $1,107,000… Lot 381, $4,807,689…”