Who Will Pay to Fix Louisiana?
The British Petroleum blowout stripped the cover from one of the most cherished myths of Louisiana and other oil-producing states—that oil development and the environment coexist in happy harmony. Yet, as devastating as the blowout is—and we may never know the full extent—it pales in comparison with the damage the oil and gas industry has done to southern Louisiana, year in and year out, over nearly a century. President Obama alluded to this in his June 15 Oval Office address, when he called for a comprehensive effort to restore Louisiana's coast and wetlands. There is a bill to be paid here too, and it is enormous. The question is whether the State of Louisiana and the US Congress will ask oil and gas corporations to pony up their fair share—which puts Louisiana in a delicate position.
No state in the union has been more firmly wedded to the oil and gas industry than Louisiana. No more zealous preachers of the clean oil gospel can be found than the state's politicians, who were elected by oil money (at the high end of industry campaign funding) and have defended the industry from regulation (including wetland protections), reduced its royalties with tax breaks and "royalty holidays" (thereby depriving the US Treasury of some $53 billion in revenues from existing offshore leases) and beaten the drums for opening the Atlantic Coast and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development... because Louisiana's experience showed oil and the environment to be so compatible. State brochures feature pelicans and oil platforms against the setting sun. The largest exhibit in New Orleans's Audubon Aquarium of the Americas contains the base of an oil rig, around which swim contented fish, framed by the logos of Shell, Chevron and BP. We have improved on Eden.
The real story was always otherwise; it was just rarely told. Oil was first found in Louisiana a hundred years ago, and the finds swiftly moved south to the coastal zone. Oil companies appropriated the coastal parishes, most notoriously Plaquemines, ground zero for the BP slick; Texaco's leases in Plaquemines were arranged by the parish district attorney, who conveniently reported only part of the proceeds to the parish police jury and kept the rest (a fact that is emerging only after his death, in a family feud). Local politicians in their pockets, Texaco et al. had one remaining problem: getting men and equipment to the drill sites and laying pipelines to carry off the gold. In the companies' way were some 5 million acres of coastal marsh, one of the most biologically productive zones in North America.
The solution was soon to come: floating dredges, which would dig canals to the wellheads and more canals for the pipelines. These dredges have worked nonstop ever since. They have ripped through the wetlands of southern Louisiana like bulldozers, severing bayous, drowning adjacent marshes, draining others and introducing salt water from the Gulf of Mexico that sears the plant roots, at which point they disintegrate and the coastal marsh system, made up of billions of stems and roots of living things, falls apart like wet cardboard. There were alternative means of access, but industry rejected them. It could also have backfilled the canals when the job was done, but this too was rejected. The reasons were remarkably like BP's: those approaches would take time, cost money.
The dredging was not occasional, or here or there. It was pandemic. The industry has laced 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through the Louisiana wetlands, each one eroding laterally over time, less an assault at this point than a cancer. They are supported by larger navigation canals, requested by the industry and built by the ever-willing Army Corps of Engineers. One such canal, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, after killing off 39,000 acres of forest and wetlands between New Orleans and the gulf, ushered Hurricane Katrina right into the city. If you drive down any bayou road in southern Louisiana, you will see marsh grasses out the window. If you fly over them in a plane and look down, you see something that looks like northern New Jersey: water roads and open water through isolated patches of green. The next time you fly over, there will be even less green. We have been losing twenty-five square miles of coastal Louisiana every year, in major part to these canals, to serve the oil and gas industry, which has made tidy sums in the bargain. When I last looked, six oil and energy corporations were listed in the world's top ten.
With this understanding, we may return for the moment to the BP disaster. It is bad, particularly for local communities, and the long term is anyone's guess. We still do not know the full Exxon Valdez story, and that was in a more confined space, twenty-one years ago. Current estimates of the BP blowout dwarf the Valdez spill, which came in at 11 million gallons. Industry-wide, the figures are no more encouraging. Coast Guard records show 40 million gallons spilled in Louisiana waters over the past ten years from routine oil activity. Which amounts to a Valdez-class spill every three years. This news, like the canals, went unreported.
Now we have BP on the front pages and reported daily, as it should be. But the sad fact is that the ongoing destruction of the Louisiana coastal zone—by canal, by pipeline, by boat wakes, by the extraction of billions of gallons of subsurface oil, gas and brines—has done far more indelible damage, not only to the landscape but to a way of life that could be sustainable for generations beyond the future of oil down here. Well before the blowout, the oil industry had eaten a lion's share of the coast through processes few were aware of and nobody talked about. Plaquemines Parish has a legitimate beef with BP today as the oil globs come ashore. But the reason nearly half of Plaquemines has disappeared over the past fifty years is that the oil industry, writ large, destroyed it. No one said a word.
It was all part of the marriage. Required by federal law to operate a coastal zone permitting program, Louisiana issued oil and gas permits like orders at McDonald's: how many would you like today? State employees referred to the industry as their "clients"; members of the general public, and environmentalists in particular, were called "others." (Of course, behind closed doors the names were more graphic.) Their marching orders, like those of the Minerals Management Service later, were to keep the jubilee on track. In the early 1980s I did a study of Louisiana permits over a three-year period; several thousand issued, four denied—none for oil drilling. A New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter did an update covering the past five years and found 4,500 permits issued, none denied. Not even the precipitous collapse of the coastal zone—which had, belatedly, caught public attention—could change the attitude or the practice. Saving the coast is one thing, but requiring the oil industry to help save it is beyond local imagination. Louisiana, the state most vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise, leads the charge against EPA regulation of carbon dioxide (letters of opposition from no fewer than four state agencies and the governor, which must be a record) and the president's climate change bill.