Port Sulphur, Louisiana
Captain Pete, as everyone in town calls him, has been an oysterman nearly his entire life. He started as a boy, learning the trade from his father, who had learned it from his father. Working fourteen-hour days from leased oyster beds in Barataria Bay, forty miles south of New Orleans, Captain Pete’s family supplied the city’s premier vendor, P&J Oyster Company. When P&J closed its doors on June 10, it was front-page news in New Orleans—one more in a string of casualties of BP’s deep-sea oil catastrophe.
"It took fifty days for BP’s oil to reach our beds," Captain Pete tells me as he steers a flatboat out to survey the damage one steamy afternoon. Video he shot a few days before showed streaks of oil the texture of jello staining the marsh grasses that shelter his oyster beds. "Those grasses will shrivel and die," he says in an accent so thick I struggle to comprehend him. With time, and a respite from additional oil, the grasses could grow back and oyster harvesting resume, he adds. But this year’s harvest is a total loss, and since BP’s gusher clearly isn’t going to be plugged anytime soon, much more oil is certain to slather those grasses.
So it makes sense that Captain Pete would welcome President Obama’s moratorium on deep-sea drilling. Except he doesn’t. The captain lost his house in Hurricane Katrina five years ago, and now the BP disaster may bankrupt the family business, which was helping to put his son through college. But the moratorium? To Captain Pete, it’s one more lunacy imposed on coastal Louisiana by outside "experts," a group he neither trusts nor respects. Invoking an analogy I heard countless times during a week of reporting there, he asks, "When a airplane crashes, do you ground every plane in the country? No. You find out what caused the problem and fix it. You don’t punish the entire industry." He points a well-muscled arm toward the dozens of other shrimp and fishing boats docked nearby. "Sixty percent of these guys work on oil rigs, or they service rigs, during the [seafood] off-season," he explains. "The economy here was just getting back on its feet after Katrina. This moratorium will kill us."
Anyone who is serious about the United States kicking its oil habit in the wake of the BP disaster must confront the realities of Louisiana, a state whose economy, politics and self-image have been saturated in oil for more than a century. They must have an answer for Captain Pete and other locals who are cursing BP even as they wonder how they will support their families if the oil and gas industry—widely regarded as the source of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in Louisiana—goes under. "We see the same reaction from people in the coal country of Appalachia and the timber lands of the Pacific Northwest," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "They may criticize the corporations doing the resource extraction, but they still want the extraction to continue because it’s the only jobs they know. The only way to approach these folks with integrity is to offer them a prosperous alternative. If you support a drilling moratorium, which the Sierra Club does, you also have to support a massive shift toward green jobs."
Plotting a green energy future for Louisiana, however, has been too daunting a task for most environmental groups. "Our side hasn’t made a blueprint for Louisiana because this state is seen as so pro–oil and gas," observes Jerome Ringo, a former Louisiana oil worker who has been chair of the National Wildlife Federation and president of the Apollo Alliance. "To be honest, I doubt Louisiana will ever get off oil completely. But we do need to diversify our energy mix. We need to think about where our state goes ten years from now and invest in the green jobs of the future."