About 7,000 years ago, global sea levels stabilized and the Mississippi River began creating a broad delta at the southern edge of North America. Over millennia, mud from the Missouri River, Ohio River silt, and the sluff off the Ozark Mountains tumbled down the continent and, at the great river’s mouth, spilled and spread into an intricate coastline of inlets, estuaries, and bays. In time, this waterscape became the perfect habitat for oysters, crabs, crawfish, and shrimp – one of the most abundant fisheries in the world.
Long before that, during the Jurassic period, organic matter collected at the bottom of what we now call the Gulf of Mexico and during millions of years, pressed by the weight of the world, transformed into hydrocarbons. In places like the Mississippi Canyon, a mile-deep trench off the river’s terminus, some of the most productive oil and gas fields on the planet formed.
Those two forces collided on April 20 of this year when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire and sank, killing 11 men, igniting the worst oil spill in US history, and poisoning the fishing waters off the country’s third coast.
The collision was a long time coming. Well before the dramatic events of the BP blowout, a subsurface tension existed between the Gulf states’ massive oil and gas industry – indisputably the center of the regional economy – and the area’s fishing traditions, the heart of its self-identity. The strain between the imperatives of the fossil-fuel economy (“drill here, drill now”) and the needs of fishing communities (which strive to steward resources) is most obvious in the state of Louisiana. Each year, Louisiana brings in 30 percent of the United States’ seafood harvest. The state is also a giant in terms of energy production. The federal waters off the Louisiana coast are the top source of US domestic crude oil and the state is the second largest producer of natural gas. For decades, Louisianans have opted to believe that fishing and drilling can happily co-exist – “the image of the pelican and the oil rig in holy harmony,” in the words of Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane University. The reality, brought into sharp focus by the BP spill and its oil-soaked birds, is more complex.
Stacy revere, slrevere.photoshelter.com
Bob Marshall, an environmental reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, offered a medical metaphor for the impact of the oil and gas industry on Louisiana’s coasts when, in late July, he wrote: “Long after BP’s oil is gone, we’ll still be fighting for survival against a much more serious enemy – our sinking, crumbling delta. Our coast is like a cancer patient who has come down with pneumonia. That’s serious, but curable. After the fever breaks, he’ll still have cancer.”
For at least 75 years, the unique ecosystem of Southern Louisiana – site of 40 percent of the United States’ saltwater marshes – has been disappearing. Each day, an area the size of a football field goes under water. In the last half-century, Louisiana’s coastal wetlands have vanished at an average rate of 34 square miles a year. One of the main drivers of this loss is the oil and gas industry, which, since the 1930s, has dug some 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through the marshes, allowing seawater to intrude inland and destroy fragile coastal grasses. Before the oil disaster made Louisiana’s wetlands a national emergency, the place was already suffering from chronic distress.
As the Deepwater Horizon drama careened from tragedy (the loss of lives and livelihoods) to farce (Kevin Costner riding to the rescue?) then back to tragedy (the numbing heartbreak of whole towns beat down), it was easy to overlook Louisiana’s long-term ecological crises. With the oil well now contained, it’s essential that we look below the surface and examine the larger forces at work. Through the cruel logic of utilitarianism, we have allowed Louisiana to become another national sacrifice zone, a place where destruction is tolerated so long as it serves the country’s energy “needs.” Like Appalachia – where ancient hollows are buried forever to get at a fraction of America’s coal – and the fracking badlands of the Rocky Mountain West – where ranchers’ wells are poisoned to get at the natural gas below – the wetlands of Louisiana, and the people who depend on them, have been sentenced to an early death for the “good” of the country.
Lousiiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and
“There’s the bigger picture, I mean, it’s our nation’s dependence on oil and gas that needs to be re-evaluated,” Brenda Dardar Robichaux, a former chief of the United Houma Nation, an Indian tribe in Southern Louisiana, told me during a June trip there. “Everyone needs to look in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do to create change so that we aren’t dependent on that?’ And Louisiana has to do that, we have to do that also. Louisiana has paid a high price for the luxury that everyone in this country has.”
That fact redefines who’s responsible for the Gulf Disaster. Yes, without question, BP has to cover the cleanup costs and compensate people for their lost earnings. The government must guarantee that anyone who skirted federal regulations pays. Someone should do some time. But the ultimate job of repair is all ours.
My father was born and raised in New Orleans. His mother was a city girl, but her people came from the countryside, where my great grandparents, who spoke French, worked on a sugar plantation. Their last name was LeBlanc, which, according to Cajun genealogists, is kind of like the “Smith” of the saltwater marshes and freshwater swamps.
When I met Brad Blanchard, a Cajun shrimper-turned-oil worker-turned-fishing lodge operator, at his boat slip in the bayou town of Golden Meadow on a sweltering afternoon, I mentioned this fact – a bit of a shameless reporter’s ploy to make a connection. “Ha,” he responded. “So you’re a white nigger.”
The comment shocked me, both for its vulgarity and its obscurity; I had no idea what he meant. Only later would I come to understand that this was, in its own fashion, a compliment, and that among the French-descended residents the term is an expression of pride. Because the Cajuns have always felt as scorned and as abused as their darker-skinned neighbors. Ejected from their Canadian homes in the eighteenth century, made to settle in a place that was then considered a no man’s land, the Cajuns for centuries existed in a world apart, persecuted for their Catholic beliefs and isolated by language. That history, combined with the more recent emotional hangover of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, has instilled in bayou residents a deep resentment, a feeling that they are, at worst, disrespected, at best forgotten by the rest of the country. Among the people I met in Southern Louisiana it was taken as conventional wisdom that had the BP blowout occurred in Santa Barbara or Cape Cod, it would have been plugged much faster.
As is the case for other minorities, for Cajuns pride offsets the sting of prejudice. Proud of thriving in a vast swampland, they are sustained by a belief that, no matter what, they will survive. This is the famed “resilience” that became the motif of so many newspaper stories about the spill. It is the feeling, common to people everywhere who work under the sun, that self-sufficiency is among the most important of values.
“The shrimpin’ industry was created by people,” Blanchard said to me as he sped a small motorboat through the maze of channels that form the bayou, a Choctaw Indian word meaning slow-moving stream. “It doesn’t bleed off the system. People actually go out there where other people don’t go and they bring in something.”
Blanchard, a trim 44-year-old with close-cropped brown hair, turned the boat and suddenly we were out on Catfish Lake, a mile-wide brackish pond surrounded by tall, lush spartina grass. The Louisiana license plates’ boast of the state as a “Sportsmen’s Paradise” became clear. Along one bank I spotted a white ibis; a minute later, an egret swooped past. Under the wide sky the whole world looked to be made of grass and water. “The fishin’ is great,” Blanchard said as he pulled the boat up to the exclusive lodge he owns. “But it’s the serenity and the seclusion. You come here, and you’re detached.”
For the next hour, I listened as Blanchard held forth on the special beauty of his birthplace. We shared a lunch of homemade shrimp-and-sausage jambalaya, and the more Blanchard boasted about the bounty of the bayou, the more it became apparent that for the fishing communities of Southern Louisiana, the “environment” isn’t an abstraction – it’s where people live and how they make their living.
If Brad Blanchard is a kind of front porch philosopher (“Who you gonna blame? Blame all of us.”), Dean Blanchard, his oldest brother, is a Huey Long-style populist. Dean is the undisputed king of the Southern Louisiana shrimp business – his warehouse landed more than 10 percent of all the shrimp caught in the state in 2009 – and when I caught him at his dockside office, he was juggling phone calls from reporters and politicians, shouting directions to his employees, and lighting one Kool after another. It was Day 50 of the oil spill, and the older Blanchard was in a foul mood.
“I’m mad, mad dat nobody is going to hold nobody accountable for what happened,” he said to me in a Cajun accent much thicker than his brother’s. “I don’t know if you noticed that big iceroom out there. When you open it up in de mornin’, it’s like a big fog dat comes out. So I been practicin’ huntin’ in de fog, in case I got to go to London and collect from dat sonofabitch myself.”
With his ankle-high muck boots propped up on the desk and his deeply tanned skin, it was clear that Blanchard would be lost without the shrimping business. “I don’t care about money,” he said. “All I care about is unloadin’ shrimp. If I was unloadin’ ‘em for free I’d be just as happy as if I was unloadin’ ‘em for makin’ money. That’s what I like to do. It makes me happy. I like to unload shrimp – seven days a week, 18 or 20 hours a day. Good people I deal with, honest, hard-workin people.”
I heard much the same when I traveled inland to the town of Granbois (“Big Trees”) to meet with Clarice Friloux, an activist member of the United Houma Nation. Friloux is a few shades paler than the leathery Dean Blanchard, but her almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones reveal an ancestry that goes back further than the 1750s. When the Acadian refugees arrived from Canada, local tribes showed them how to live on the marshes, and over time the two peoples converged.
“My grandfather was from Golden Meadow, and he only spoke French, but he was Native American,” Friloux said as we sat on her porch with her son, Danny, a burly fellow with a “Native Warrior” tattoo on his arm. Like Blanchard, Friloux has a difficult time imagining living outside the bayou. “Eighty percent of Native Americans are probably working on the water. Most of them, that’s all they know. That’s all they were brought up to do. The people of the bayou are probably the most generous, happy people there are.”
Among both the Cajuns and the Native Americans, the pride in their culture is grounded in a love of place. The problem is, that place is disappearing.
The wetlands started to fade away in the early twentieth century with the erection of dams and levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries. In an effort to prevent floods, the Army Corp of Engineers constructed unbreachable levees on the lower Mississippi, essentially locking the river in place. By ending the flooding, the levee-builders also ended the regular replenishment of sediment that built the delta.
The oil and gas industry made the situation worse. In the 1930s, drilling in the marsh began, and companies started tearing up grasslands to lay pipe. In 1947, the first offshore oil well was drilled, and the industry’s dredged canals grew in number and size. Ocean waters, often pushed by hurricane force, flowed inland and started to eat away at the roots of the marsh grasses.
Essentially, the dam builders starved the delta and then the oil industry bled it close to death.
Today, the industry’s footprint is impossible to miss. In the 15 minutes I was on the water with Brad Blanchard, we passed a large chrome pipeline, then a canal marked with a Texaco sign, then a drilling rig with a crew busy at work. We saw at least three signs with some version of the warning, “Danger: No Drilling or Dredging. Gas Line.” Blanchard said: “If you ever look at a map, it’s fucking spaghetti down there. There are pipelines everywhere.”
Ten years ago, a writer (and now a frontline climate justice activist) named Mike Tidwell wrote a heartfelt book, Bayou Farewell, that brought to national attention the steady destruction of the state’s coast. The issue had so long been ignored, he suggested, because “even in Louisiana, well into the twentieth century, Cajuns were treated as second-class citizens, viewed as hicks and swamp peasants.” When the book was published, Tidwell warned that we had no more than 20 or 25 years to reverse the loss of one of the country’s most crucial coastal marshes. Since then, almost nothing has been done – and an area five times the size of San Francisco has slipped into the sea.
To understand Louisiana, it’s important to know that it is, above all else, a petrol state. The extraction and refining of oil and gas grosses $42 billion a year, employs 75,000 people, and accounts for a quarter of the state government’s revenue. Fishing is roughly a $2.4 billion industry, and many of those involved only work part of the year. Shrimpers and oystermen might be the iconic face of Louisiana, but oil is its lifeblood.
The muscle of the oil and gas industry can best be seen at the industrial city of Port Fouchon, a short 15 miles from Dean Blanchard’s shrimp dock. The 1,300-acre facility is alive 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (including Christmas). Dozens of cranes stretch above a maze of warehouses, loading yards, and dry docks. Wide canals are choked with barges, tugboats, and massive supply ships. About 10,000 people work there, and they service more than half of all the offshore drilling rigs in the United States as well as the giant off-shore terminal, called LOOP, which receives tankers from Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and anywhere else that has oil for sale. It is the largest energy port in the country, bringing in almost one-fifth of all the oil we use.
Fishing might be a “way of life” in Southern Louisiana, but oil and gas is just as much a part of the community fabric. On the bayou, fishing and oil are kissing cousins. As Brad Blanchard said to me, “I don’t know anyone who don’t work in seafood, or oil and gas, or government.”
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, works in both. 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. “We have co-existed with oil companies here for the last sixty years,” he told me. “It’s been an uneasy relationship at times, but mostly it’s worked.… We have to have oil.”
Even Clarice Friloux isn’t willing to give up on the oil and gas industry. For years she led an environmental justice campaign to close down a drilling mud waste dump located at the edge of Granbois, and finally reached an out-of-court settlement with ExxonMobil, which operates the site. She is no stranger to the negligence of the industry, yet she fears the consequences of shutting it down.
“I know people from the bayous who, it’s their livelihood, it’s what they’ve always done is work offshore on a drilling rig,” she told me. Danny, her son, manages gas lift lines on offshore production platforms. “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.”
Of course, bayou residents are only being, in economist-speak, “rational.” As Upton Sinclair once noted: “It is difficult for a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” In this case, that would mean understanding that the state’s utter reliance on oil and gas is partly to blame for the cannibalizing of its coast and culture. It would also mean recognizing that such dependence is a contradiction of the ideal of self-sufficiency that many residents are so proud of – that drilling and fishing might be incompatible.
But looking around the landscape of the region, it’s hard to see how things could be different. Take, as just one example, Mike Voisin. He is one of the biggest oyster farmers in the state and stands to lose millions of dollars from BP’s mistakes. “Half of my family is in oil and gas, and half of my family is in seafood,” Voisin (pronounced Wa-zan), a sixth-generation oysterman whose shucking warehouse is based in the oil-services town of Houma, told me. Voisin is a soft-spoken, gray-bearded man who struck me as especially thoughtful. He is worried about the reliance on fossil fuels: “It’s scary that we’re so dependent on something.” He supports the creation of a clean energy economy: “I do think at some point alternative fuels will make their way into the market such that they will be the affordable one and will drive our economy.” And at the same time he is skeptical of a green economy happening anytime soon: “What would it be like if we don’t have oil and gas here? We will find out someday…. I don’t think we will see it [in] our lifetimes. But maybe our kids’ kids’ kids will.”
I got a better sense of where Voisin was coming from as I left his warehouse. Standing in his oyster shell-strewn loading yard, the main thing I could see was a pair of 70-foot-tall drilling platforms dry-docked at his neighbor’s, Narbor’s Offshore Corporation. The oil, it seemed, was everywhere.
Voisin’s predicament is Louisiana’s predicament, and it’s also the plight of the entire United States, writ large. Because if Louisianans have been willing to sacrifice their unique landscapes for oil and gas, the rest of us put them up to it. We do so every time we put the key in the ignition or enjoy a 15-minute hot shower fueled by natural gas. We feed Port Fouchon and Port Fouchon feeds us.
In that sense, we are all Louisianans. After Hurricane Katrina, those words were a statement of solidarity. In the wake of the BP oil spill, they’re an admission of complicity.
The day after I visited Mike Voisin, an article appeared on the front page of the local Houma newspaper, The Courier, titled, “Boycott Big Oil? Prepare to give up your lifestyle.” “Oil is everywhere,” the writer, a national reporter for Associated Press, reminded us. “It’s in carpeting, furniture, computers, and clothing. It’s in the most personal of products like toothpaste, shaving cream, lipstick and vitamin capsules. Petrochemicals are the glue of modern lives and even in the glue, too.”
This is an important fact – and one that bears repeating. The problem comes when it’s offered as apologia rather than admonishment. Too often, the reminder of petroleum’s central role in our lives becomes a justification for inaction. The boycott article ended with the dubious argument that “to live without petrochemicals doesn’t make much sense.” This is too glib by half, an attempt to make an interregnum of human history – the entirely unnatural age of petroleum – seem inevitable. Just because oil has been with us for 100 years does not mean it will be with us always.
Louisiana’s predicament is the plight of the entire US, writ large.
The saltwater roughnecks who work in the offshore oil fields probably understand this best. They have no illusions about their work. Without succumbing to either cynicism or sentimentality, they recognize that punching a hole in Earth’s surface to suck out hydrocarbons is inherently a violent act – one that needs to be done with a certain humility … or else you risk getting burned.
“We’re humans,” a 29-year veteran of the oil industry told me on my last day in Louisiana. “You don’t piss off Mother Nature. You gotta stroke her just right. With oil and gas, you’re messin’ with Mother Nature. It’s like wrestlin’ a tornado.”
The same could be said of the levees placed on the Mississippi River 80 years ago. The erosion of the Louisiana coastline, the carving of the marshes, and the oil spills large and small are tied together by a similar way of thinking, a mindset that assumes an omnipotence in human action. There’s no well too deep to drill or river too strong to corset, we’ve been led to believe.
The hubris connection became obvious to me when I flew over the Deepwater Horizon site with the Coast Guard. As we cleared Barataria Bay and Grand Isle, the first thing I noticed was how completely the oil industry has taken over the ocean. I could see dozens upon dozens of structures: some of them just small squares, others tree-like risers, a few big enough to accommodate helipads. All part of the 4,000 oil and gas platforms that make up the Gulf’s industrial archipelago.
Equally shocking was the tattered coastline. From the air, the erosion of the marshes was impossible to miss. Lines of dead trees poked up from the sea and one-time channels were now surrounded by open water, berms on each side marking where the grasses once had been. The landscape looked like a watery skeleton.
Later, as the plane returned from the BP crime scene, I asked a New Orleans-born photographer what he thought about the spill. His body was electric with indignation, and I heard, once again, the anger that Louisiana had been sacrificed for the conveniences of the rest of the country.
“You think this would have been allowed to happen if this had been LA or Hartford?” he said, echoing the same complaint I heard across the state. I asked him about the drilling moratorium, and he paused a while before saying, “I don’t want anyone to lose their job. Oil and gas is important. But where do you draw the line?”
Here, I thought, as I looked down at the marshes turned into a photonegative of themselves, water where the land was supposed to be. It will not be painless or quick, and it will involve a whole new set of sacrifices, many of them by the same people who have already suffered. Still, it has to be done. We must draw the line at the place where – because of our unquenchable thirst for oil, because of the delusions of our own power – we have accomplished something like the impossible: We turned the sea black and made the land vanish.
Jason Mark is the editor of Earth Island Journal.
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