Did federal agents spy on offshore oil lease protesters in New Orleans?

Hundreds of protesters disrupted an offshore oil and gas lease auction held in March at the Superdome in New Orleans. This week, an environmental group filed information requests with federal agencies to find out if undercover law enforcement agents were among the protesters. (Photo by Paul Corbit Brown/Rainforest Action Network.)

Back in March, hundreds of protesters descended on the Superdome in New Orleans to disrupt a federal auction for new Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases. They waved signs, carried banners and chanted "Shut it down!" and "the Gulf is not for profit!" The action was part of the international Keep It in the Ground campaign seeking to halt the extraction of fossil fuels in order to prevent devastating climate change.

Now an advocacy group wants to know if federal officials worked with local law enforcement and oil and gas industry insiders to spy on environmentalists involved in that and other protests held as part of the campaign.

This week the Center for Biological Diversity filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the federal agencies that oversee oil and gas leasing. The Aug. 11 filings came in response to a recent report by The Intercept that revealed several participants in a May protest of a fossil fuel auction in Lakewood, Colorado, were actually undercover agents sent by law enforcement to monitor the demonstration, and that they were relying on intelligence gathered by Anadarko Petroleum, a major Texas-based oil and gas producer.

The Center's filings seek information about all offshore and onshore federal fossil fuel auctions conducted by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) since last August, including the March 23 New Orleans auction and 13 others targeted by protesters. To read the request sent to BLM, click here.

"There's a large and growing movement of peaceful protesters calling on their government to make a moral choice to save our climate and end new fossil fuel leasing on public lands," said Taylor McKinnon with the Center. "The public has a right to know whether the government has launched a surveillance program targeting climate activists who are courageously speaking up for what's right."

The protest in New Orleans drew about 200 people from across the Gulf region, with buses bringing demonstrators from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Despite the boisterous protest, the auction proceeded as scheduled.

Over the past decade, the burning of federal fossil fuels has been responsible for nearly a quarter of all U.S. energy-related emissions. An 2015 report commissioned by the Center and Friends of the Earth found that remaining federal fossil fuel deposits — oil, gas, coal, oil shale and tar sands — that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution, the release of which would have calamitous effects on the climate.

Climate change and related sea-level rise are already taking a heavy toll on communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Earlier this year, for example, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians announced plans to resettle their chronically flooded South Louisiana community to drier land using a $48 million grant won in the National Disaster Resilience Competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and The Rockefeller Foundation.