Day After Obama Tours Louisiana Flood Damage, Gov't Holds Massive Gulf Oil & Gas Lease Auction

The Red Cross has called it the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy. While many climate scientists have tied the historic floods in Louisiana to climate change, President Obama made no link during his remarks. However, on Tuesday, four environmental activists were arrested in New Orleans protesting the Interior Department’s decision to go ahead with a lease sale of up to 24 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration and development. The sale is being held today in the Superdome—the very building where thousands of displaced residents of New Orleans sought refuge during Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago. We speak to Antonia Juhasz, an oil and energy analyst, author of "Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill." She joins us from San Francisco.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, President Obama visited Louisiana for the first time since the devastating floods that killed 13 people and damaged 60,000 homes. The Red Cross has called it the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy. It also marked Louisiana’s worst flooding since Hurricane Katrina. Some neighborhoods still have up to two feet of standing water left. President Obama spoke in Baton Rouge. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I just had a chance to see some of the damage from the historic floods here in Louisiana. I come here, first and foremost, to say that the prayers of the entire nation are with everybody who lost loved ones. We are heartbroken by the loss of life. There are also people who are still desperately trying to track down friends and family. We’re going to keep on helping them every way that we can. As I think anybody who can see just the streets, much less the inside of the homes here, people’s lives have been upended by this flood.

AMY GOODMAN: While many climate scientists have tied the historic floods in Louisiana to climate change, President Obama made no link during his remarks. But while Obama was speaking in Baton Rouge, four environmental activists were arrested in New Orleans while occupying the headquarters of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management headquarters. They were protesting the Interior Department’s decision to go ahead with a lease sale of up to 24 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration and development. The sale is being held in the Superdome—the very building where thousands of displaced residents of New Orleans sought refuge during Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago. One of the four arrested Tuesday was John Clark, a professor at Loyola University.

JOHN CLARK: You know, in a sense, I’m doing this for my ancestors, my children, my grandchildren, and that in my lifetime I’ve watched an area of the coastline the size of the state of Delaware disappear, and that it’s very painful to me to think about the fact that my grandchildren and their children will not even be able to live here in the future, because we’re going to lose southeast Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the flooding of Baton Rouge and today’s oil and gas lease sale at the Superdome, we’re joined by Antonia Juhasz, an oil and energy analyst, author of Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Antonia. Talk about the connections we’re seeing today, from the protest in New Orleans to the flooding of Baton Rouge.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Good morning, and thanks for having me, Amy. So, you know, just the timing of all of these events couldn’t be more devastating, really. So, you have this historic flood. You have the president there to offer assistance from FEMA and to, you know, hopefully try and assist those on the ground, while at the same time the Interior Department is continuing the problems that help excel this storm in the first place, help make it more ferocious, help make these storms more frequent. And that, of course, is the burning of fossil fuels, leading to climate change. President Obama has been very outspoken and, in some cases, aggressive in the needs to tackle climate change, at the same time as expanding offshore oil drilling, expanding the production of oil and gas to new record heights across the United States, but, in particular, right now, most relevant to look at the expansion in the Gulf of Mexico. So, the sale taking place in about two hours at the Superdome for 24 million new acres in the Gulf of Mexico, this sale will complete, if all the leases are sold, all unsold leases in the western part of the Gulf. So that’s basically federal waters offshore of Texas. And these include some ultra, ultra-deepwater leases, so leases that would be at twice the depth of that which BP was drilling when the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened. It’s 4,400 blocks. It’s a big sale, a sizable sale. And there have been—

AMY GOODMAN: And for one second, for those who don’t remember, when you talk about the BP Deepwater Horizon, talk about how many people died and how extensive the pollution and the damage was.

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Well, that would take many hours, because, of course, it was one of the most—the largest offshore drilling oil spill in history. This was April 2010. Five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, released over a three-month period of time, extensive damage, which I’ve witnessed firsthand from the—in a submarine, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, to the shores, to the air, to the animals, to the people. And the devastation continues. One of the outcomes of this oil spill was, obviously, a tremendous amount of oil within the Gulf, and it’s estimated that 33—that 30 million gallons of oil remain in the Gulf ecosystem to this day of oil spilled from the BP disaster, April 2010. But that oil has had all kinds—has caused all kinds of problems. One of the problems that it contributed to was the destruction of marsh and the further erosion of the Gulf shore. Now, that destruction of the marshland is a continuation of harm caused by the oil and gas industry over decades that has contributed to coastal erosion, the elimination of marshes, the elimination of wetlands in Louisiana, which makes storms much more ferocious, because those wetlands, those marshes, should be there to suck in the water, as natural sponges, if you will, when water floods onto land. Without that marsh, that was eaten away by oil, without that coastline, that was eaten away by salt, that was allowed to incur on the coastline because of canals built for pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure, the coast isn’t there, and the floods just come in and decimate communities, which we’re seeing more and more of. In addition, there is, of course, the ongoing economic harm that’s suffered by fisherfolk and people who—oil workers, people who live off of the Gulf of Mexico that were harmed by this oil spill. And that, of course, makes dealing with catastrophes even more difficult, because they don’t have the economic backpinnings to deal with this type of catastrophe. And a lot of people, frankly, whose lives were upended because they’ve spent the last six years now organizing to try and stop offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and their lives are focused on doing that, and then they’re hit by these storms, and then, now, that makes it even more difficult to do that type of organizing. So the chain events sort of roll on and on. And one of the biggest problems is that we haven’t—well, while the lessons have been learned from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster—meaning numerous studies, incredible analysis—the policies that are the—that should be the expected outcome of those lessons have not been implemented. So, the Chemical Safety Board, the most important independent investigative body looking at disasters like these, in its most comprehensive analysis of the disaster, said, you know, basically, the chance of another Deepwater Horizon-like disaster is still very likely, and the lessons have not been learned. And a regulatory environment that invites companies to essentially say they can do the right thing, but not have to prove that they can do it, still perpetuates offshore oil drilling in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, hundreds of protesters disrupted another government auction of oil and gas drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. The government was attempting to auction off 43 million acres of offshore drilling rights at an event also held at the Superdome, like today’s, in New Orleans. Cherri Foytlin of Idle No More–Gulf Coast spoke out during the protest.

CHERRI FOYTLIN: I’m standing here with 200 brave souls that are saying no, no to the fossil fuel industry, and yes to a just transition for all of our people. Whoo! We came—we marched up here, maybe 500, maybe a thousand people—I don’t know. But it’s the most amazing thing to see all these people stand together with self-determination and say it’s time for a new day in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s over. The fossil fuel industry, you’re on your way out. Make yourself a bed. You’re done. It’s over. Bye-bye.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have Cherri Foytlin of Idle No More–Gulf Coast saying it’s over. But is it over, Antonia? And what’s the difference between that public auction and what’s happening today?

ANTONIA JUHASZ: Yeah, so, I was there. That was quite a historic event. You know, really, public organizing against offshore oil drilling is something that is fairly brand new in this size and scale in the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s really been a process over decades of Gulf Coast communities experiencing the harms of the industries, the up-and-downs of the markets for oil workers, as well. And then, of course, the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have led to this evolution of increased opposition to drilling among Gulf Coast communities. And that protest in the Gulf at the Superdome in March against the last—the previous lease sale was really historic and nearly shut down the sale. So, in response, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is part of the Interior Department, for this sale taking place this morning, for the first time closed the sale to the public. So, the Superdome, which is this enormous facility, is going to have a room with, you know, 50 oil company representatives and 10 oil companies and maybe 20 journalists sitting in a room, and it will be closed to public participation, because they don’t want to see this type of public opposition to the lease sale that they saw in March. It will be viewable online, so people can watch it online if they want, but that means all you can do is, you know, watch what unfolds, not try to participate in the process. And the protest that you mentioned at the opening, at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s office in New Orleans, the like 15 or so Gulf residents and others who showed up to deliver 180,000 signatures on a petition calling for this lease sale today to be canceled, as you said, four of them were arrested because they said they wouldn’t leave until the lease sale was canceled. They were hoping that the Obama administration would start doing in the Gulf Coast what it has done in the Atlantic, which, in its new proposal for the next five years—it’s finalizing a new proposal for offshore oil drilling—new drilling in the Atlantic was taken off the table in that proposal, but offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was expanded. And what the Gulf residents are saying is "We no longer want to be the sacrifice zone for the United States. If it’s good enough for the Atlantic, it’s good enough for us." And they were hoping that this lease sale would be canceled, and, if not canceled, I would imagine, hoping to have the opportunity to be there and be present and show their opposition. And that is not going to be able to be the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonia Juhasz, we want to thank you for being with us, oil and energy analyst, author of Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill.

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