The Obama administration's recent auction of offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico was not going so well to begin with.
Oil and gas companies bid on only about 1.6 percent of the 44 million acres worth of Gulf waters up for auction. High bids for plots in the Gulf's central district totaled $156 million, one of the lowest totals in two decades. Plots in the eastern portion of the Gulf did not receive any bids at all.
Then dozens of protesters arrived, filling the auction with color and noise. The sound of their chants drowned out officials from the US Interior Department, who announced the results of the auction as representatives from the oil and gas industry stared down at their notes, apparently unimpressed.
The public owns -- and the federal government controls -- millions of acres of land and billions of acres of ocean with fossil fuels beneath them. These reserves account for nearly half of the carbon potential of all the remaining fossil fuels in the United States, according to a recent report sponsored by environmental groups.
The US Interior Department regularly leases portions of this land and water out to private developers, a practice that advocates say must end if the United States is to meet its international obligations set by the Paris climate accord to avoid the worst consequences of climate disruption.
Some of the protesters in New Orleans also fear that offshore drilling could cause another catastrophe like the oil spill that followed the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, and others live in the shadows of aging refineries that process Gulf crude and emit toxic pollution. All of the demonstrators seemed to agree on a simple message: "Keep it in ground," or, in terms of the Gulf, deep beneath the seafloor.
Offshore Leasing Is a "Corporate Giveaway"
On Tuesday, March 29, 45 environmental and Indigenous organizations filed a legal petition demanding that President Obama use his authority to put an end to the leasing of federal waters to offshore drilling. The groups estimate that halting new offshore leases would keep 62 billion tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere.
The petition echoes an unprecedented letter sent from 400 organizations to the White House in September 2015, requesting an end to fossil fuel leasing on all public lands and waters. In November 2015, progressives in Congress, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, introduced legislation that would do just that, but the bill has failed to make it out of committee.
The latest petition comes just weeks after dozens of groups criticized the Obama administration's proposed offshore drilling plan for 2017 through 2022. In light of widespread opposition on the East Coast, the plan scraps a controversial proposal to allow drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, but would continue leasing programs in Gulf and Arctic waters.
An executive action halting the "corporate giveaway" of public lands and waters to oil and gas developers would cut the nation's carbon emissions by 25 percent and encourage a transition to cleaner energy, according to the petitioners. About 72 percent of federally controlled oil reserves are offshore, and analysts agree that the majority of US reserves must stay in the ground to avoid a rise in global temperature that would have disastrous effects.
"Any areas being opened up for leasing now will not even begin producing oil and gas for at least five years," said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. "By then, we should be well on our way toward ending destructive fossil fuel extraction, not adding new rigs."
Is a Renewable Future a Political Reality?
It was not the chanting demonstrators or the threat of ecological meltdown that kept energy companies from gobbling up millions of acres of the Gulf of Mexico at the auction last week. Global oil prices have hit rock bottom due to a variety of factors, including the domestic energy boom fueled by fracking that has contributed to a worldwide glut.
The result is low prices at the pump and little interest in new exploration, especially in the deep waters under federal control. For environmentalists, this is the perfect time to push for clean energy.
The US has the ability to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by as early as 2050 due to advances in technology, according to a panel of scientists who presented a white paper on the subject on March 29. The cost of producing wind and solar energy has dropped by 58 and 78 percent, respectively, from 2009 to 2014, and many investors are already enjoying the benefits of advanced energy conservation techniques.
"As more cities and more companies and more people recognize the environmental benefits [of renewables], it's going to be harder to stall momentum," said Robert Sargent, director of energy policy at Environment America and coauthor of the white paper.
Sargent said renewables enjoy widespread support nearly everywhere except Congress, which may explain why political advocates have targeted the Obama administration instead. So far, the administration has focused on coal, but its plan to replace aging coal-burning power plants with new generators that run on gas and other fuels is currently tied up by legal challenges.
Environmentalists point out that the Obama administration recently suspended new leases for coal production on public lands while regulators review the program, so why not do the same for offshore drilling? The federal government controls all waters in US territory beyond three miles from the coast, so a moratorium on exploration could halt future offshore drilling in large swaths of ocean.
The Obama administration has less than a year to finalize its offshore drilling plan and cement its climate legacy. All of the remaining Republican presidential candidates have promised to expand drilling and gut environmental regulations. Hillary Clinton has said she opposes drilling in the Arctic and would "reform" leasing programs, but only Sanders opposes leasing out public lands and waters to oil and gas companies outright.
Can we replace future offshore drilling platforms with solar panels and windmills, and still have enough energy to keep the lights on and get to work in the morning? According to scientists and environmentalists, the answer is a resounding "yes," but first the government must stop auctioning off our oceans to the highest bidder.