This March, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will hold a sale inside the Superdome in New Orleans where it will auction off leases to more than 42 million acres of U.S. waters off the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida for new oil and gas development.
But as that sale gets underway, environmentalists plan to protest by encircling the Superdome. The March 23 action is part of an international campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground to stave off catastrophic climate change.
"In taking this action, we are united with other communities around the world to defend our beloved homes from drilling, mining, fracking, refining and other abuses of the extractive and fossil fuel industries," according to the protest announcement. "We also acknowledge the particular burden borne by the Gulf of Mexico region."
Almost 24 million acres of the Gulf are currently leased for drilling, according to BOEM. Drilling in the Gulf accounts for 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and 5 percent of total U.S. dry natural gas production. The Gulf Coast also supplies over 45 percent of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity and 51 percent of U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity. The region continues to suffer the effects of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, which presents an ongoing threat to ecosystem health, as well as damage from chronic spills and coastal wetlands loss related to offshore drilling.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a grassroots group that works to end petrochemical pollution and is helping to coordinate the March protest, has launched a related petition calling on President Obama, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to take a stand against new Gulf drilling. Aiming to collect 45,000 signatures, the organizers already have more than 43,000. They are also calling for phasing out fossil fuels, switching to solar and wind energy, and the immediate hiring of 1,000 workers to repair aging oil industry infrastructure.
"After promising to 'change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet' in the State of the Union, President Obama put new federal coal leases on hold," the petition states. "Will our President show the same climate leadership in the Gulf?"
The upcoming lease sale marks the ninth and 10th lease auctions under the federal government's 2012-2017 offshore leasing program. The last lease sale in August 2015 was one of the smallest ever in the Gulf, with low oil prices dampening interest among potential bidders. The price of a barrel of oil then was hovering around $40; it is now just above $30.
The announcement of the March protest comes as a new report examines the climate risks of tapping new fossil fuel reserves. "Keep It in the Ground," a joint effort by 350.org, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, examines the oil, gas and coal deposits around the world that pose the greatest risk to the climate if burned.
The report lists oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico as among the planet's major carbon threats. It points specifically to the upcoming Gulf lease auction, which could result in the production of an additional 460 million to 894 million barrels of oil and 1.9 million to 3.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
"With the historic climate accord set in Paris last year, nearly 200 nations from around the world set an expiration date for the fossil fuel era," said Lena Moffitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. "Now we must rise to the occasion by transitioning to 100 percent clean and renewable energy sources, and leave dirty fuels where they belong — in the ground."