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Activists call for end to new oil drilling at federal leasing meeting in New Orleans

By:  Jennifer Larino, NOLA.com

 

A routine public meeting over future plans for oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico transformed into a lively debate Monday (April 18) after environmental activists marched into the room and called for an end to new drilling. Close to a dozen regional business leaders also organized to voice support for the industry and the jobs it creates.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has been hosting meetings across the country to gather public input on its latest five-year leasing plan, which determines offshore areas that will open to oil exploration from 2017 to 2022. The New Orleans meeting was one of dozens as the agency hears out any environmental concerns with the leasing plan.

“I’m here to stand in solidarity with other Gulf Coast communities. We are the sacrifice zones,” protester Yudith Nieto said.

On Monday, William Brown, BOEM’s chief environmental officer, looked both proud and overwhelmed. Brown said the public meetings are usually quiet affairs. He recalled an early evening meeting in Mobile, Ala., last year that just two people attended.

Brown gestured to the conference room audience at the DoubleTree Hotel in Kenner, a mix of anti-drilling T-shirts and crisp suits.

“These are all views we should listen to,” Brown said. “This is what America is all about.”

Activists argued BOEM’s meetings are empty because the agency has not done enough to include affected communities.

BOEM rescheduled its New Orleans meeting after close to 200 anti-drilling demonstrators marched into the March 23 federal lease sale at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Anti-drilling chants drowned out federal officials when the winning bids were read aloud.

Officials said the meeting was moved to the DoubleTree Hotel near the airport because it had more space “to accommodate a larger anticipated number of attendees.” The meeting ran from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Shell employs 1,900 in New Orleans.

Kenner Police Department cars and uniformed officers surrounded the hotel, though the meeting was calm. Activists chanted “The Gulf is not for sale” for a few seconds before dispersing to talk with BOEM experts stationed around the room.

Industry supporters said calls to end new drilling are shortsighted. Oil and gas supports thousands of jobs and small businesses in Louisiana and is the bedrock for products many Americans have grown used to, said Lori LeBlanc, director of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association’s offshore committee.

“It’s important for folks to consider how they got here, for one. They drove here,” LeBlanc said. “We take for granted the small luxuries oil and gas affords us.”

Activists in attendance said the out-of-way location discouraged participation. They were also critical of BOEM’s public comment process, which requires commenters to submit written statements over a computer rather than speak before an audience.

“We are the people who live on the Gulf Coast, that the government should be talking to,” said Ramsey Sprague, who lives in Mobile. “Why is it so hard for us to be heard?”

Here are perspectives from six attendees at Monday’s meeting.

Alicia Cooke, co-founder, 350 Louisiana

Cooke, who lives in New Orleans and helped found Louisiana 350, the local offshoot of the 350.org climate activist movement, was frustrated by the lack of consideration given to climate change in the federal leasing plan. Of the 800 pages in the plan’s environmental impact statement, only four are dedicated to climate change, Cooke said. She said Louisiana must call for change if it wants its coastal communities to survive. “We need to stop perpetuating the narrative that Louisiana is an oil and gas state and that that’s never going to change,” Cooke said.

Lori Davis, president, Rig-Chem 

Davis’ company makes and distributes chemicals used in the offshore drilling. In her down time, Davis, who lives in Houma, visits a family camp on Grand Isle where the sight of rigs lit up far out on the water is almost a comfort. She said the oil and gas industry is not a threat to the coast, it is its livelihood. Limiting or banning drilling hurts small businesses and families, she said. “I have 16 families that depend on me to get their paycheck,” Davis said.

Jessica Anne Wheeler, environmental activist

Wheeler is a “rare” fifth-generation Floridian who later moved to New Orleans. She said the coastal communities she loves are being ignored as companies use the Gulf to quench global thirst for fossil fuels. Thousands will lose their jobs if drilling stops, but millions will lose their homes if climate change is not addressed, she said. “This is literally eating up the land we live on,” Wheeler said.

Paul Aucoin, executive director, Port of South Louisiana

Aucoin emphasized the economic costs of ending offshore exploration. He said drilling in the Gulf of Mexico gives the U.S. an opportunity to be energy independent. Without it, the country could be more reliant on imports, including from countries “that don’t like us very much.” “Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot,” Aucoin said.

Cherri Foytlin, environmental activist

Foytlin lives in Rayne with her six children. She said the country needs to transition away from fossil fuels and putting an end to future drilling is a way to spark that. She said industry claims it is creating jobs, but low oil prices have shown how quickly those jobs go away. The state has lost some 12,000 jobs over the past year. “We hope BOEM will make the right decision and not shackle us to an archaic industry that harms our wildlife and our people,” Foytlin said.

Lori LeBlanc, offshore committee director, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association

LeBlanc, who lives in Lafourche Parish, noted drilling provides not just jobs, but also billions of dollars in federal royalty revenues that support the nation. The country should explore solar, wind and other renewable energy, but it cannot “just turn off the switch for oil and gas.” “That would impact every American beyond just the gas pump,” LeBlanc said.