Maybe stop selling the ocean?

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

New Orleans CNN —  

The climate change activists marched into the Superdome – that sports arena turned nightmare after Hurricane Katrina – and demanded an end to the auction.

“Stop the leases! Stop the greed!”

“Give the people what they need!”

A bunch of reps from the oil and gas industry looked at the protesters quizzically.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” one man told me.

The business types, seated in rows of folding chairs, many of them wearing starched shirts and blazers, had gathered Wednesday in a conference room inside the iconic stadium to bid for rights to drill for oil and gas on 45 million acres – 70,000 square miles – of federal property in the Gulf of Mexico.

The activists – maybe 200 in all – did everything they could think of to stop it from being sold.

They stood in front of a podium on stage, holding signs that said “Keep it in the ground” and “Solar doesn’t spill,” a clear reference to the BP oil disaster that wrecked the economy and environment here six years ago this spring.

They chanted. They pumped their fists. They yelled.

“No! No!” one woman in a trucker hat yelled, running around the conference room and waving her arms. “Do not bid! You’ll all burn in hell!”

As I watched this wild – often totally excessive – scene unfold I was at times mystified.

But I also was thankful that these activists are making such auctions visible.

Climate activists tried on Wednesday to stop the federal government from leasing 45 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel development.
Annie Flanagan for CNN
Climate activists tried on Wednesday to stop the federal government from leasing 45 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel development.

Until environmentalists tipped me off about this process, I was barely aware the federal government holds auctions to sell off rights to extract fossil fuels from federal land.

Yet, these little-seen auctions are an important front line in the United States’ battle against climate change. One quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 2003 and 2014 were attributable to fossil fuels from public property, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity.

These auctions are where the government rubber-stamps oil and gas development on public lands. That helps ensure climate change continues. And while ending the leases wouldn’t stop climate change on its own – we could import oil from other countries, for example – it would certainly would help. It would send the message that the days of burning dirty fuel for energy and electricity are coming to an end.

The Obama administration continues to talk a big game on climate, saying correctly it’s one of the greatest threats of our time and that we must cut back on pollution from cars, power plants and such.

These auctions, meanwhile, show we’re still addicted to fossil fuels.

And the federal government is happy to provide the next fix.

If we have any hope of meeting the terms of December’s Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls for holding global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world basically needs to be off of fossil fuels – carbon neutral, in other words – between about 2050 and 2080.

Drilling for oil on new offshore leases in the Gulf moves us in exactly the opposite direction.

Sixty-seven million acres of federal land already are leased for fossil fuel development, the Center for Biological Diversity says.

It’s plenty to keep the country running as it transitions to clean sources of fuel, said Jason Kowalski, U.S. policy director for environmental group

“They have five times more than they can burn before wrecking the climate,” he said.

There are signs the White House is listening.

The Obama administration five-year plan for offshore leases, for example, calls for proposed offshore drilling on the Atlantic Coast to be dropped. And the administration announced earlier this year a temporary moratorium on new coal leases on federal land.

The Gulf Coast, however, remains what locals call a “sacrifice zone.”

As fossil fuel development slows or stops elsewhere, it chugs along here.

“It’s just a huge carbon grab,” said Monique Verdin, a climate activist who lives in St. Bernard Parish.

Plus, consider the toll fossil fuels already are taking on the Louisiana coast.

There’s also the BP oil spill; oil-and-gas canals that are eating up marshland and leading to coastal erosion; and sea-level rise, which already is threatening many communities in the Louisiana bayou.

And there are hurricanes like Katrina, which warmer temperatures could strengthen.

All those factors drove protesters to Wednesday’s auction.

“I feel like a daughter of the Gulf Coast, and I don’t feel like we should be taking these risks anymore,” Verdin told me. “I don’t think it’s fair or just to make these gambles with these waters.”

“When you watch your own city and your own country get swallowed underneath the sea, it’s one of the most heart-wrenching experiences imaginable,” said Jenna deBoisblanc, a 26-year-old from New Orleans who lived through Hurricane Katrina here and then Hurricane Sandy in New York. Those experiences “sort of pitched me over the edge” and into volunteer activism, she told me.

She showed up Wednesday wearing a Captain Planet costume.

And she stood onstage chanting as the Bureau of Energy Management held its auction.

Officials read off the bids one by one.

“Block 518,” a voice said over the loudspeaker.

“BP: $8 million.”

(That figure and others are rounded; it was hard to hear amid the commotion).

Some of the industry reps moved to the back of the room beneath overhead speakers.

Bidders from the oil and gas industry laugh about a climate change protest at a federal fossil fuel lease auction held Wedneday at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Annie Flanagan for CNN
Bidders from the oil and gas industry laugh about a climate change protest at a federal fossil fuel lease auction held Wedneday at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Others smirked, laughed, took photos. Jotted notes on spreadsheets.

“I think they’re incredibly naive,” a man in a blue blazer and glasses told me of the activists. “If you asked them to take off everything that’s polyester [a petroleum product], they’d be naked.”



In the end, 693,962 acres of fossil fuel leases were sold, to the tune of $156 million.

But here’s the important catch.

Those bids were logged by fossil fuel companies before the auction started.

On Wednesday, officials simply were reading the results – announcing winners.

The sale was all but inevitable.

Some activists seemed unaware of this.

Others said the demonstration was important despite its inability to stop the sale.

“When you gather this many communities from all over the nation and region to stand up and fight back for the future and for environmental justice, it’s a success,” said Yvette Arellano, an environmental activist from Texas, who paused her chanting just briefly to talk with me.

I agree that speaking out is a success. It’s critical.

But, eventually, someone – hopefully the federal government – has to listen.

They must listen not only to calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground but also to pass sane economic policies, like a carbon tax, that would account for the true costs of pollution and push us towards cleaner energy.

These sobering facts hit me during one of the activists’ chants on Wednesday.

“This is how democracy works!”

“This is how democracy works!”

They stood in front of the podium yelling as the auction continued right behind them.

Add John D. Sutter on Snapchat.

Follow his Facebook posts.

Subscribe to Sutter’s newsletter.