Like many people in South Louisiana, I have been utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster represented by the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. To witness another catastrophe of this scale, less than five years after post-Katrina levee failures, is almost too much to comprehend. There is a tendency to block it out; to think that this really can’t be happening. But it is.
News accounts will talk of leaked memos, of containment strategies, of the small armies of volunteers and of the volume of oil. Thousands of barrels per day. First it was 1,000, then 5,000, and on April 30 we find out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks we could be facing a leak ten times that size, of 50,000 barrels per day. The numbers begin to lose meaning, because the truth is that we are screwed.
But this volume of oil is the only real thing. All the containment strategies are too late, the fires ineffective, the same with the dispersant chemicals.
A question of scale
This disaster didn’t happen on April 20. It happened long before, and all of this was just waiting. It is difficult to disaggregate how much of this is the result of safety failures on the part of BP and how much is the inherent risk we run with offshore drilling. This particular rig had a series of accidents, yet still was drilling offshore wells that set records for their depth. Obviously better safety procedures lower the risk of these kinds of accidents; but sooner or later, people make mistakes. In the offshore oil industry, like the nuclear industry, it is the magnitude of the consequences of these mistakes that is damning.
We’ve been sowing the seeds of this for roughly a century, by building an economy on the use of finite fossil fuel resources, which we now must go farther and farther to find, and by under-developing the regions where we extract these mineral resources, including lax workplace and environmental safety concerns.
And in the absurdity of this disaster, this is perhaps the most absurd thing; that we are so intently focused on utterly ineffectual short-term responses. It is not surprising that there is a lack of larger analysis in our short-attention span corporate media. Not surprising, but a dis-service nonetheless.
In this immediate, dramatic disaster, there is the background of the other, slower disaster: land loss in South Louisiana, accelerated by canals cut through the wetlands by oil companies for petroleum exploration and navigation. Non-profit Gulf Restoration Network estimates that we have lost 50% of the wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico already. Others throw around figures about how long it takes to lose a football-field sized chunk of land (under an hour).
But all of that is abstract until you stand on the edge of brackish water where people’s homes and businesses once were. Because this land loss has not only meant that South Louisiana residents, including in the city of New Orleans, are more vulnerable to hurricanes, but the displacement of entire communities. For those who live in South Louisiana and are flooded every time a major hurricane comes, sometimes every few years, it means a losing battle to hold on to land, community and ultimately culture.
The oil companies have never been held accountable for their role in this other, slower disaster. With the Horizon Deepwater leak, the livelihoods of many in these communities is on the line. Louisiana produces a large portion of the United States’ wild seafood. This seafood – boiled shrimp, oysters fried and raw, crabs, seafood gumbo – is an important part of the culture of South Louisiana, and has been a family business for many in rural South Louisiana for generations. The oyster beds offshore of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes are already closed. We don’t know when they will open again. Shrimpers have already filed a lawsuit. Many shrimpers and oystermen, who have had to fight rising fuel costs, hurricanes and floods, and in the case of shrimpers, dumping of farm-raised shrimp from other nations, are now out of work again. Again this time, more will look for work elsewhere. In a cruel irony, many who have been forced out of shrimping have gone to work on the offshore oil rigs.
Louisiana as an underdeveloped petro-state
It may be hard to understand this outside of the Deep South, but it is not really that surprising that when this happened, that South Louisiana was the first place to be affected. The oil industry has been doing whatever it wants down here in our home-grown banana republic for a long time.
Huey Long, who created the foundation of modern Louisiana, was the first political leader to take on big oil and win substantial victories. Long paid for much of the economic modernization of the state (importantly roads and bridges) and the undergirding of social reproduction (schools, hospitals, textbooks) with oil money. He succeeded in using a portion of the mineral revenues to help create a mildly social-democratic order in the state, but failed to ever really control the oil companies. Long’s approach was not to nationalize, but, as he had said of the nation’s millionaires, to “file their nails and let them live.”
This petro-populist approach may have won some victories for poor and working people, but it left a legacy of a state dependent upon mineral revenues, and politicians who are utterly sold out to big oil companies. It has been a long time since Louisiana had strong labor unions, so the forces to counter these tendencies have been few and weak. Our “right to work” laws and anti-union culture have prevented unions from seizing the power that is necessary to bring workplace safety to the forefront, as unions have in other states. It’s common knowledge that the oil industry in refining and petrochemical processing gets sweeter deals and more leeway here in Louisiana, particularly in terms of environmental enforcement and health and safety.
The results of this oil fiefdom, coupled with a dismantling of health, safety and environmental laws at the national level over the last 30 years, leaves us in a situation where these kinds of disasters are entirely predictable. Dismantling regulations seems so distant and arcane, and yet ultimately these are the results.