Frank Basile, a U.S. Department of Interior official, was conducting the long-awaited Georges Bank oil lease sale on the stage of the Rhode Island Veterans Auditorium this afternoon when a dead, foot-long fish landed nearby with a plop.
White leaflets began floating down from the balcony toward the heads of 200 oil men attending the sale, quickly followed by at least four plastic bags of crankcase oil.
John Crawford of New Orleans, a land agent for Gulf Oil Co., was struck on the back of the neck by one bag, which burst and spilled about a quart of black gunk on his blue suit and white shirt.
At least a dozen other oil executives were sprayed with droplets of oil from other bags.
The attack injured no one and lasted less than a minute.
The protesters ran from the balcony, opened a seldom-used side door in the old state-owned building and escaped down a fire escape.
After a delay of about five minutes, Basile, manager of the New York Outer Continental Shelf Office of the Interior Department, continued the sale.
After all the bids were read, Basile announced that the total high bids were $827,832,853, noting that the sum was about $200 million more than he had expected.
The big winner in the bidding for the right to drill for oil and gas in the rich fishing grounds east-southeast of Nantucket Island appeared to be Mobil Oil Corp., which won 16 of the 116 nine-square-mile tracts offered.
Mobil's bids, submitted with several combinations of partners, totaled $494.3 million.
In all, 29 companies took part in the bidding for 73 tracts; 43 received no bids.
The highest bid on a single tract was a $80,299,000 offer made by a consortium of Mobil, Amerada Hess Corp. and Transco Exploration Co.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated there are 123 million barrels of oil and 870 billion cubic feet of gas trapped in geological formations beneath the sediments of the Georges Bank.
The Department of the Interior will now take up to 45 days to review the bids before deciding who will be awarded the leases, Basile said. Oil executives said that drilling operations could begin within two months of the final decisions.
The sale had been postponed twice, most recently Nov. 6, because of court orders growing out of a 23-month legal battle against the sale waged by the Conservation Law Foundation and Francis X. Bellotti, the Massachusetts attorney general.