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.
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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.
The BP blowout has put Louisiana politics in a bind. "Drill, baby, drill" may be what Sarah Palin says, but it is what we do, more rampantly and with less restraint than any jurisdiction one would want to emulate. The reaction of Louisianans to the BP blowout has been to protect the industry and its longstanding commitment to what has turned out to be a very dirty (40 million gallons spilled per decade, in an uneventful decade), plainly unsustainable (it will run out, which is why, Palin and pundits to the contrary, the business has gone offshore) and deleterious relationship (disappeared wetlands do not reappear when you stop abusing them; at best they can be re-created in part, and at enormous expense). The blowback within Louisiana against President Obama’s moratorium on deepwater drilling in the gulf has been ballistic, even from the coastal communities most at risk. They too, work on the rigs. We are all in this marriage together.
It is clear at this point that BP will pay for its blowout and all consequential damages only to the extent they can be proved. (It is doubtful we will ever know the impacts on sea life and the benthic floor, and few will be subject to dispositive proof.) The cap on BP’s liability to private parties is likely to be lifted. A BP executive, probably one with direct supervision over the rig closure, may well go to jail. But in a couple of years this chapter will close. The next chapter will center on how coastal communities and the resources they depend on can survive. Who knows; the plumes may yet move east and deal Louisiana a nasty but glancing blow. When BP’s bill is finally paid, however, there will be another one left that eclipses it. Federal and state officials are still struggling to come up with a plan to restore the southern Louisiana landscape. The price is rising, but high-end estimates put it near a mind-blowing $140 billion. Which has required Louisiana politicians to take a new tack.
For the past fifty years, as the findings of scientists were trickling in, documenting the relationship between oil canals and marsh loss (the graphs are linear: as the canals go in, the land disappears), the state simply denied them. Worse, those who reported their findings say they were demoted or canned, their work labeled extreme, inimical to Louisiana. We remained glued to the image of the pelican and oil rig in holy harmony. As the coastal losses became too apparent to ignore, however—roads were disappearing under high tides—it became clear that Louisiana was going to need major amounts of money. The state has been reluctant to tag the oil industry with the bill, however; after all, we are still married.
This, then, is the new pitch. It is hard to say with a straight face, but here goes: "OK, we have let oil and gas run rampant in our state, and it has wrecked our coastal zone, but, America, we did it all for you! Louisiana has sacrificed itself for the good of the nation. You all drive cars, don’t you? So you ought to pay for fixing the harm." Of course, the good of the country was nowhere on Louisiana’s radar; the state was pocketing revenue, and that was sufficient reason to kill the zone. The new pitch also affronts a principle of fairness in America that applies equally to giant corporations and the neighbor who borrows your lawn mower: you break it, you fix it. We do not ask tax-payers to repair coal extractor Massey Energy’s damage to Appalachia or to abate emissions from chemical plants because we turn on the lights or buy Clorox. These damages belong in the cost of these products, and it is about time they got in there before the environment tanks because taking it is free.
These considerations have not deterred an unlikely coalition of industry and (a few) environmental groups from banding together in something called America’s Wetland to help sell the pitch to Congress. The America’s Wetland Foundation is funded by Louisiana industries associated with the oil business, overwhelmingly Shell. In short, the industry that has profited enormously from Louisiana while damaging it severely is now campaigning to have American taxpayers pick up the tab. The industry has spawned another initiative to assist, called America’s Energy Coast. I do not think I need to describe its theme. The vehicle du jour is a Louisiana bill in Congress that diverts more public offshore royalties to the state. Louisiana gets more of the pie; the rest of America gets less. The oil and gas industry is, of course, fine with the proposal. It pays not a penny more for nearly a century of damage that has left the coast in shreds.
There is a better approach. We have three major actors here, each responsible for a catastrophic loss: the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the major levees and canals; the oil and gas industry, which, for private profit, laid down an even more extensive and damaging web; and the State of Louisiana, which promoted the first two to the hilt, silenced the critics and took its cut. Each, including industry, can now pay its share. We require the chemical industry to clean up old waste sites under Superfund; we ask the same of the coal industry under the Surface Mine Restoration Act. Billing the oil and gas industry for its damages would be nothing new. Then again, this is Louisiana, and we and oil remain faithfully married—at least until the industry leaves us, as it surely will after a few more heady years, with only the memories and a wasted skin.