Notes on a disaster: Louisiana pays again for our economy's petroleum addiction (Part 2)
Readers will pardon the delay in delivering part 2 of Notes on a Disaster (read part one here). Two weeks is a long time in many disasters; however in this one it isn't. Not only does oil continue to gush, unchecked, from the ocean floor, but we are going to be living with this spill for a long, long time.
The first drops of oil on the Louisiana shore
Before I get into the meat of this post, what have we learned in the last few weeks?
- BP could find out better estimates of how much oil is leaking, but either won't or won't share what they do know – courtesy of NPR.
- The air quality in Plaquemines Parish is fucked. The amounts of hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds are hundreds of times the levels for physical reactions.
- While offshore drilling carries significant inherent risks, BP fucked up really bad on this one, and the lack of regulation is finally being noticed by the media. Which goes to my point in part 1 about thirty years of dismantling health, environmental and safety regulations, led by the Republican Party, unchecked by weak institutions of organized labor. Failures of batteries, blowout preventer. Ongoing failures of regulation: containment will be harder than we hoped.
- No one wants to tell us what the oil dispersants will do to our health.
Louisiana, Oil and the Spectacle
Oil is far from the only industry in South Louisiana. Very significantly, we have an enormous tourist industry; when conventions are included this is estimated to be about $5 billion in the city of New Orleans alone. And while much of the tourism hinges around the reputation of the City of New Orleans as a place of wildness and decadence, the culture of the region – largely the music and the food – are perhaps more important. In the rural areas, food and music absolutely are the draw.
However, as Gulf Restoration Network often points out with their No Coast No Music festival and advertisements, the music is a product of the land of South Louisiana. If this is true of music, it is moreso true of food.
The oil industry burrows itself into the cultural economy, to assure that when these contradictions do emerge, they are insulated. The largest example is Shell Oil's sponsorship of Jazz Fest, New Orleans' second largest tourist draw (after Mardi Gras) and a PR extravaganza for Shell. Shell has used their sponsorship of this festival in the past to try and muzzle musicians like Dr. John, who has been outspoken about the way that the oil industry has ruined the coast. Gulf Restoration Network has also used the festival as a public education opportunity, flying planes with banners over the festival asking Shell to “Hear the music – fix the coast you broke”.
There is also the function of keeping the spectacle going as a way to prop up the city's economy and a distraction from the very serious realities of life in South Louisiana. Everybody likes music and food, and we are masterful down here at living Le Bon Temps while the world sinks around us.
Jazz Fest is not the only place the Oil Industry inserts itself into the cultural landscape. Every September, the city of Morgan City, in the heart of Bayou Country near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River holds the (yes, this is real) Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. It will be interesting to see how well attended that festival is this year.
But perhaps the most cynical move by the oil industry is creation of the America's Wetlands organization; a faux-grassroots effort by big oil to pressure the federal government to put money into fixing South Louisiana's wetlands so that they won't have to. Tragically, since locals have organized few other mechanisms to address these needs and America's Wetlands is so well funded, many locals in South Louisiana will half-heartedly support the effort – even though they know it is a sham.
Our addiction to fossil fuels: policy
When faced with a disaster of this scale, people want quick answers. But America didn't get into this addiction easily and even under the best case scenarios we won't get out of it easily. We can't just stop offshore oil drilling – we have to reduce our use of petroleum, otherwise that oil will have to come from somewhere. The best moves we can make to change this dependence will take decades.
It was a series of policy moves over decades at the national level that created this monster. Where shall we start? Autmobilies were emerging on their own as a popular product in the early 20th century, but there were a few steps along the way where they got a little help in taking over our landscape. How about the Great American Streetcar Scandal where Standard Oil, Mac Truck, Firestone Tires and other companies got together to buy up the mass transit in 45 cities, so they could destroy them?
Better yet, the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950's and 1960's – the creation of the world's most aggressive automobile and truck infrastructure paid for with our tax money.
Let's not forget the building of the roads system in our national forests, which subsidized big timber and left us with more miles of publicly constructed roadways than the insterstate highway system.
It is ironic that the “free-market” right supports industries that rely on fossil fuels, pretending that they came to dominance by the rule of the market, when in fact we got here by specific policy decisions. Big government intervened heavily to support a dependence upon the automobile and fossil fuels. Like nukes, free-market supporters of fossil fuels are ignorant at best, and usually denying the historical reality that got us here.
The Left, Energy and Infrastructure
The policy decisions that we are making today are likewise crucial, and it is here that the Left has an important role.
Marxist-Leninist regimes are not known for progressive environmental policies (with the significant exception of post-1991 Cuba); however the Social-Democratic Left has been a world leader. When looking at the rise of the solar industry, many are quick to forget the policy that started in Denmark and Germany and has been replicated across Europe, the feed-in tariff, was passed in both countries by coalitions of Greens and Socialists. Because of the feed-in tariff not only has Europe installed 80% of solar panels used globally (not to mention dozens of offshore wind parks and other renewable development), but they have essentially created a booming global industry.
Likewise, the battle in the United States over policies that move us away from fossil fuel dependencies have been in recent years a battle between the left and the right of the extremely narrow American political spectrum. Spurred on by a large if problematic environmental movement, the Democrats in congress under Obama's leadership have passed policies that are extremely important first steps for moving away from this dependency.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus package”) in particular has supplied funding for both passenger rail and renewable energy development. And while much more is needed for the kind of wholesale changes in our mode of life, these moves have been groundbreaking. Let's not forget that in doing so, Obama was influenced strongly by a former self-described communist - Van Jones. Again the left has led, but this time, it has found institutional support in Obama's adminstration.
Likewsie, the Republican Party and the “Blue Dog” Democrats – like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu – have blocked significant progress on policies that would move us away from this dependency. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal even rejected stimulus money intended for passenger rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Republican and “moderate” Democratic politicians, elected by voters nationwide including in Louisiana, are keeping this addiction going.
However, it is a national addiction and most of the oil that is coming out of Louisiana is not going to Baton Rouge or Lafayette – it is going all over the nation, including to cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Los Angelese, full of smug progressives and liberals, who, even if they don't drive, live the rest of their lives on our petroleum infrastructure. Louisiana has a tragic relationship to the oil industry that in many ways is like an abused spouse. But it is extremely important not to blame the victims here.
The Left has an important role to play in fighitng for sane energy policy, for Louisiana and for the world. The world is already moving in this direction. But we won't get there by alienating poor and working people, or by blaming the victims. Some of the solutions, like a move to biomass from agriculture and forestry wastes for a portion of electricity production, will upset environmental fundamentalists but will be extremely important for the Deep South.
Van Jones has set an excellent example in his call for Green Jobs, and the left in this country has not yet caught up. It is time to be leaders in the move away form fossil fuels and towards sane energy policies.