Louisiana Is What Oil Addiction Looks Like
On the Bayou, Fishing and Oil Are Kissin’ Cousins
The front page of the Sunday New Orleans Times-Picayune is dominated by the kind of articles that have become the mainstay of oil spill coverage here: A piece on how local restaurants are coping with the loss of oysters, a review of the tensions between the Coast Guard and BP, and a look at a very similar oil blowout that occurred last year off the coast of Australia. The letters to the editor and the editorials tell a different story. There, the ink is spent on the controversy swirling around President Obama’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. In a pair of editorials on the moratorium, the newspaper’s writers conclude: “The Obama administration should replace this ban with measures that will improve safety without choking our economy.”
People across the byways and backwaters of southern Louisiana are as pissed as ever at BP’s negligence and incompetence and what they see as the federal government’s complicity in letting the accident occur in the first place. But in the last week their anger and frustration have found a new target. Many people here are worried that, having suffered major losses in the fishing and seaside tourism industries, they might now lose the mainstay of the region’s economy — oil and gas exploration and extraction. In more than a dozen interviews conducted over the past five days I have not talked with a single person who supports a halt to offshore drilling.
That might sound odd to you if you’re reading this in Santa Barbara or Boston. After all, hasn’t the oil spill imperiled, as we hear time and again, Louisianans “entire way of life.” Sure. But here’s the rub: Oil and gas is also a way of life in southern Louisiana. Everybody here has someone in their family who depends for their living on offshore drilling.
“I don’t know anyone who don’t work in seafood or oil and gas or government,” Brad Blanchard, a former operator of an offshore rig re-supply ship company and now a co-owner of an exclusive hunting and fishing lodge told me Friday as we sped through the marshes on his boat. “Just like I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had family hurt or killed in a hurricane.”
Brad’s oldest brother is Dean Blanchard, a shrimp baron in Grand Isle who is one of the biggest shrimp packers in the state. Dean has suffered what he estimates to be millions of dollars in lost revenues due to the spill, and with his knack for Huey Long-like fiery populism he has appeared everywhere from Fox News to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. Brad has also taken a big hit due to the spill. Typically his lodge would be fully booked with outdoorsmen paying up to $400 a night for guided fishing expeditions; now, his bayou resort is empty. Neither of the Blanchard brothers supports a shutdown of offshore drilling. “Oil is a fact of life,” Brad told me. “We’ve made it a fact of life.”
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, has a similar take. “We have co-existed with oil companies here for the last 60 years,” he told me last Thursday. “It’s been an uneasy relationship at times, but mostly it’s worked. Some of us do seasonal work in the oil and gas, during the winter we go work in the refineries.”
Guidry, 62, has run his own shrimp boat since he was 14 years old, a craft he learned from his father. Over the years he has also worked for a range of oil and gas companies, including Brown and Root, Amaco, Hess, and BP. “Until we have an alternative energy source that this country is going to pursue with passion and money, we have no choice,” he said. “We have to have oil. If we were to shut down oil production and gas production, New York City would freeze and also Washington, DC. Think about that one, sir.”
What about those who have taken the worst beating, people like Clarice Friloux, a part-time shrimp boat deck hand and activist member of the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe? The remaining Indigenous people in southern Louisiana are among those hit hardest by the oil blowout, as they are especially dependent on fishing, which for them represents a connection to their traditional cultures. They also have suffered a long history of environmental injustice in the region. For example, Friloux’s community, the unincorporated town of Grandbois, has a large oil field waste site located right at its edge. Drilling fluids and other byproducts of the extraction industry are taken there and simply piled under the sun. Friloux fought for years to shut the disposal facility, and finally reached an out-of-court settlement with Exxon, which manages the operation. She is no stranger to the negligence of the oil and gas industry. Yet she fears the economic consequences of stopping offshore drilling.
“I know people from the bayous who, it’s their livelihood, it’s what they’ve always done is work offshore on a drillin’ rig,” she told me. “Companies are going to leave. As much as I don’t like their byproducts and how they dispose of them, I would hate to see drilling be stopped in the Gulf because of families losing their jobs just like the shrimpers are.”
Friloux’s son, Danny Jr., could be one of them. He works on offshore production platforms, where he helps manage the “gas life lines” that keep the oil coming up through the wells. “We’ve always worked side by side with the oil and gas,” his mom said, “we all know we need the oil and gas industry.”
In listening to the Blanchards and the Frilouxs one comes to understand how very deep, how seemingly intractable, the state’s dependence on the fossil fuel industry is. At least since the 2006 State of the Union address, when George W. Bush declared that “America is addicted to oil,” most people have understood that our reliance on fossil fuels is dangerous. (Environmentalists, of course, have known this far longer.) But I think it’s fair to say that until the Gulf spill the idea of being “addicted to oil” was just that — an idea. Now it’s an impossible-to-ignore reality. Finally we understand what it means to be hooked. For here we are, stained and soiled and debased by the industry, and still we keep using.
Louisiana is what oil addiction looks like. The state has been slapped — and slapped hard — by the hand that feeds it. Yet one of residents’ biggest worries is that the industry will pick up and leave. The situation should be familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. Louisianans are scared of the consequences if they don’t quit their addiction to oil and gas. They are even more afraid of what it will feel like if they do.