Climate activists say that US government and Big Oil both profit from offshore drilling lease while ordinary people pay the price
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. The Obama administration’s Bureau of Land Management has auctioned nearly 45 million acres of land in the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of protesters in New Orleans are pushing back, calling for the administration not to expand offshore drilling, especially since residents are still feeling the aftermath of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Now joining us from New Orleans to discuss the protests and the issues behind it is our guest, Mike Ludwig. He is an investigative reporter for Truthout.org, and he also covered the protests today. Thank you so much for joining us, Mike. MIKE LUDWIG: Hey, thanks for having me. DESVARIEUX: So, Mike, what’s at stake for the people protesting this auction? LUDWIG: Well, we had a lot of activists from all over the country and a lot of Gulf residents as well. It was also a pretty diverse crowd. You had environmental justice activists, Black Lives Matter activists, activists with the Black Youth Project, indigenous activists, and just people who live along the coastline here who lived through the BP spill. So what’s at stake is, A, the environment of the Gulf is definitely a concern for these protesters. But also, this is part of the keep it in the ground movement. There’s climate justice activists here who are saying that we don’t need any more oil coming out of the ocean or coming out of the ground. We need a transition to cleaner fuels to protect the planet from climate change. So there’s a broad array of issues being brought up by the people here today, and for them there’s a lot at stake. DESVARIEUX: So the counterpoint is always that the oil industry creates jobs, and the people in the Gulf are dependent on these jobs. First of all, let’s bring the truth out. How dependent are the people for these types of jobs, those in the offshore oil industry, and what would be the alternatives? Could there still be jobs and a moratorium on offshore drilling? LUDWIG: Right. I mean, in Louisiana the oil industry is a big employer and a big part of the economy, but as you can see right now in Louisiana, which is having a budget crisis, it also can be a problem, right, when you base your entire economy on oil, and then the price plummets, which it has in recent months. All of a sudden there’s massive layoffs, the job isn’t there, the tax revenue isn’t coming in. And all that wealth dries up very quickly. So it is a big part of the economy down here, but it’s also an unstable part of the economy. And I think what the environmentalists are saying here is we could give, we could create jobs through sustainable energy production, as well. Solar, wind, all are options for creating new jobs in these areas. And also, you know, it’s not just oil that is an employer down here. It’s also fishing, it’s also oysters, it’s also a lot of things that rely on clean water for revenue to come in, and those jobs are also at stake here. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the auction itself. The results of which are coming out, but slowly. Who did you expect to be participating, and what kind of popularity–did they get many bids, essentially, in this auction? LUDWIG: Well, 30 energy companies submitted 148 bids according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is the Interior Department sub-agency that basically ran this auction. They got 148 bids. Some of the bids was, I’m looking here at their press release, $179 million worth of bids. And the high bids totaled $1.56 million. And that was for nearly 700,000 acres in one portion of the Gulf of Mexico out of 44 million acres that were up for auction. So there was, you know, there was 30 companies participating here. They did get a lot of the Gulf of Mexico to expand drilling. And you know, as far as who participated it’s probably a lot of, you know, the same players who are already out there. You’ve got BP, you’ve got Shell, you’ve got some other developers that are already established in the Gulf, just looking to expand their business. DESVARIEUX: I want to talk about sort of the viability of getting a moratorium. Because you have examples in the past of the government trying to get a moratorium specifically after the BP oil spill, which was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The Obama administration, they came out and they wanted a six-month moratorium. And they were met with legal challenges, Mike. And essentially there was a back-and-forth in the courts. So can you talk about what forces, both governmental and corporate, are really working to keep offshore drilling not only open but expanding? LUDWIG: Right. Well, you’ve got to remember that even though–these waters are run by the federal government. So when they lease them out to these private oil companies, this is a big source of revenue for the government, right? And all sorts of excess revenue for these oil companies, and these oil and gas companies, right, because they’re getting oil and gas out there. So there’s–you know, there’s a lot of money here. There’s a lot of money for the interior department, and there’s also a lot of money for the industry. And you know, with oil prices the way they are, some of these numbers don’t look as high as they have been in past years, right. This is an annual lease sale. This happens every year. It’s just that this year there was a massive protest, and the past protests are minimal, or non-existent when these things happen. And this happens every spring. There might be a little less interest this year because the oil prices are down and production is down because of the global market. But you know, in an industry that’s trying to expand. They’re basically getting, you know, very, very valuable resources out of the Gulf. And the government gets a lot of revenue from it. So this isn’t something that I think the industry or the government wants to end any time soon, even though the Obama administration did just sign an historic climate accord. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Mike, let’s also turn to some news that came out today. The Justice Department is seeking approval for a federal court in New Orleans to approve a record $20 billion settlement with BP over the Gulf oil spill that happened in 2010. BP has already paid, I think it’s close to $20 billion in damages and civil penalties. And these funds were mostly dispersed between federal, state, and local governments. But I want to ask you, Mike, you’re there on the ground. Have the funds really gotten down to support everyday people? And if not, what would be a more equitable way to affect the most vulnerable? LUDWIG: Well, you know, earlier this year on the anniversary of the spill, I went out on a small shrimping boat with a, a family of fishermen who either in their generation or the generation before had immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. And their family business was fishing in Vietnam, and they kept up that business in the Gulf of Mexico. And they told me that, yeah, they did get some money out of this settlement, but there were problems with that. You know, there was, some people rushed to get the money and may have taken a lump sum right in the beginning, when had they had waited they would have gotten more over time in payouts. But they had to take that lump sum, because at the time their business wasn’t up and running because of the oil spill, and they were desperate for money. So there was a lot of problems with how the money has trickled down to average people who rely on Gulf ecosystems to make a living. And they’re still to this day struggling with the agencies who are in charge of doling this stuff out, and fighting for justice. And they say that they have not gotten what they deserve. And you know, they told me when I went out fishing with them that they’re still struggling, several years later. And the process of getting money actually to these communities, and actually getting money to the people who are going to be doing the restoration, has been very politicized. And BP hasn’t necessarily been cooperative, as you can see, with how much of a fight they put up in court. DESVARIEUX: And so they would rather there be–what is their alternative, essentially? What are they proposing, more direct payments? Those who are fighting for justice, I should say. LUDWIG: Yeah. I think they, I think that they, they want more direct payments, but they are also looking at these people who took lump sums right in the beginning, and they’re saying that those people, who took these lump sums out of desperation, not because in the long term it was what was financially best for them, they took this very quick payoff, those people should be able to come back now and have another chance at getting some kind of, of compensation for what they’ve been through and their business. DESVARIEUX: All right. Mike Ludwig joining us from New Orleans, thank you so much for being with us. LUDWIG: Okay, thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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