Notes on a disaster: Louisiana pays again for our economy’s petroleum addiction (Part 1)

Posted May 3, 2010

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.

A boat travels through the Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

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.

Multiple disasters

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 homegrown 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. The Deep South has also never 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, whether in exploration, 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.

In Part 2:

  1. Louisiana, oil and the spectacle: Shell and Jazz Fest
  2. Our addiction to fossil fuels: policy
  3. The left, energy and infrastructure

More information:

  1. Leaked report: Government fears Deepwater Horizon well could become unchecked gusher
  2. Deepwater Horizon rig had history of spills, fires before big Gulf of Mexico oil spill
  3. Gulf Restoration Network
  4. Louisiana Environmental Action Network


7 responses to “Notes on a disaster: Louisiana pays again for our economy’s petroleum addiction (Part 1)”

  1. scott Avatar

    That Gulf Restoration 50% number comes from this USGS Report:

    noting a pattern of subsiding Interior wetlands associated with the oil and gas pipeline canals. the oil and gas pipelines themselves account for 11% of loss, and this pattern 25%. there’s a squishier category -“Land Loss due to Altered Hydrology –Multiple Causes”, which is 22% of total land loss pre-1990. You’ll see scientists and other coordinator class types hedging, and using a more conservative figure like 30% of loss.

    But my point is that much of the news media and older folks will talk about land loss as “erosion,” when the majority of the loss is interior ponding, away from boat traffic and much other wave action, largely because of pipeline and other canals. I’ve heard this referred to in other places as “canal builders effect.”

    2) oil and gas PR (America’s Wetlands) would rather the US Gov’t pay for the entire restoration plan. The PR response to GRN’s campaign for legal liability was to blame the nutria. many decision maker types see this crisis as a way to get a hand up on oil and gas, and make them pay for their share of coastal restoration–Jindal has called for BP to pay for the reestablishment of the Chandeleur Islands. So yes, this game is being played same as in 1930.

    3) Shell, in relation to the other giants (BP/Amoco, Exxon, etc) has more “exposure” to the wetlands issue, given that they own many of the pipelines that are becoming more and more vulnerable to wave action, because of the land loss they have spurred.

    4) I am wondering about how clamping down on oil production in the Gulf, should it ever happen, will affect production by these companies in other places, like the Niger Delta, which suffers many of the same ills to worse effect.

    thanks for your article

  2. Joanna Avatar

    Thanks, Christian. You’ve illustrated how this was set in motion not only by lax regulations under capitalism–a reflection of the weak labor and environmental movements in the South and beyond–but the desperate and dangerous maneuvers an oil-based world economic order will continue to produce–at the cost of human life, livelihood, and environmental resources– unless somehow derailed by social movements. *THIS* is the story, and we need to get it far and wide, cause folks are being distracted by BP’s efforts to have people “volunteer” to clean up their f&*k up. A nice feel-good “green-washing” will become the official story, with a ten-year old bayou kid holding hands with a kid from the lower-nine, hoisting a cleaned up egret up for the news cameras to see. But it isn’t just about BP; this is systematic, this is about petro-capitalism.
    We are weary in New Orleans. And we are not ready to be the repeat posterchild of environmental crisis. Thanks for contributing this to what I hope will be a broader national conversation.

  3. Nick Avatar

    ANSWER is circulating an online petition for the government to seize BP and use its assets for relief and environmental remediation. Sign it at I’m not sure how much it will amount to, but it’s good that they’re putting the idea out there.

  4. fred Avatar

    wow, 50,000 barrels a day, that is insane. i look forward to reading part two…

  5. Dianne Avatar

    Glad to see part 1 of “Notes” and looking forward to part 2! This “accident” that was just waiting to happen refutes President Obama’s decision to lift the ban against more oil drilling! We need to dramatically expand the production of non-fossil fuels!

  6. Bill Quigley  Avatar

    Published on Saturday, May 1, 2010 by

    Fire on the Bayou: Non-Stop River of Oil Heads to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida
    by Bill Quigley

    The Coast Guard estimates 5000 barrels of crude oil a day, 210,000 gallons a day, are pouring out of a damaged British Petroleum (BP) well in the Gulf of Mexico since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. Eleven people died in the explosion. The oil rig burned and sank. The exploratory well, which is 50 miles away from the coast, continues to powerfully disgorge oil from the bottom of the 5000 feet deep surface of the Gulf.

    Oil has now reached the Louisiana coast. The Associated Press (AP) reported there is an oil slick 130 miles long and 70 miles wide in the Gulf of Mexico. Birds covered in thick black oil have already been recovered. Efforts to stop the oil have not proven effective. The AP reports the oil is expected to reach Mississippi on Saturday, Alabama in two days and Florida in three.

    Late Friday afternoon, the Mobile Press Register reported a confidential government report prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Ops concluded that if the pipe on the Gulf floor “deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought.” An uncontrolled release of oil “could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.”

    Plans to set parts of the Gulf on fire have been pushed back by bad weather. The unprecedented idea was to burn up the oil spill before it reached land. “This is a great tool,” promised a BP representative.
    In response, one long-time Louisiana resident said, “You know you’re in very serious trouble when the solution is for BP and the feds to set the Gulf on fire.”

    Worst hit in Louisiana are the coastal areas of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes – just now limping back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

    On Friday afternoon, federal and state officials held a joint press conference in Louisiana. Curiously, they held their conference with BP representatives. Officials characterized the situation as dangerous and unprecedented. Government representatives said they were pushing BP to increase its efforts to stop the oil because current efforts have not been effective. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano flatly acknowledged that the U.S. is working closely with BP.

    BP has caused a lot of trouble lately. The Pulitzer Prize winning news site Pro Publica reported BP “has found itself at the center of several of the nation’s worst oil and gas-related disasters in recent years.” BP recently plead guilty to federal felony charges related to a massive explosion in Texas where investigators found ignored safety rules and a disabled warning system. BP is also accused of responsibility for several recent spills in Alaska.
    Why then would federal and state officials hold a joint press conference with BP, given the multinational corporation’s role in the unfolding disaster? Perhaps the reason was hinted at by a comment from the Secretary of the Interior in which he cautioned that the U.S. depends heavily on oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico. Even though the White House protested that the oil spill is not President Obama’s Katrina, a public partnership between the perpetrator BP and the government certainly has the potential to become a “Katrina moment.”

    Louisiana is trying to deploy 6000 members of the National Guard. Air Force planes have been called in to spray chemicals on the oil. National Guard soldiers in Louisiana are currently “engaged in the planning of the effort to evacuate and provide security and clean up for the coastal communities expected to be impacted by the spill.” They are also planning for the protection of medical facilities, fuel distribution, interstate highways, and power facilities.

    Louisiana has already started setting up its shelter program for people with special needs who may have to be evacuated because of concerns about air quality.
    Official states of emergency have already been declared along the coasts in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
    Along the Louisiana coast, people fear the loss of the fishing industry. In New Orleans people worry about air quality.

    Thousands of pelicans, herons, egrets, ibis, frigate birds, and rarities like grebes and albatrosses are at risk from the river of oil. Dolphins are birthing at this time so their offspring are at risk. Shrimp and oyster fishing grounds are being closed.
    Air quality for humans is another serious issue. The New Orleans area, home to hundreds of thousands, has already been blanketed by a chemical odor.
    The head of the Louisiana State Health Department Jimmy Guidry said the smell is an irritant, affecting people with lung conditions and asthma. He said it is normal for the smell to arrive before air quality checks could detect anything harmful. Officials with the Louisiana Health and Hospitals and Environmental Quality said changes in air quality can cause nausea, vomiting or headaches for people who are sensitive. Air sampling was started by the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday and water sampling started Friday. No reports have been made public so far.
    Governor Jindal has asked that the feds declare a commercial fisheries failure for Louisiana. The state supplies about one-third of the seafood harvested in the lower 48 states – about $2.85 billion worth a year. Louisiana has put price gouging laws into effect forbidding the raising of prices on gasoline, petroleum products, hotels, motels, and retailers.
    Jindal told the press Thursday that he has asked several times for a detailed plan of how Coast Guard plans to handle the situation, but he has “not seen a quantifiable plan.”

    In an ominous note, lawmakers, according to USA Today, say they have been told that not only is light crude headed towards the coast, but so too is heavy asphaltic oil.

    “This isn’t a spill. This isn’t a storage tank or a ship with a finite amount of oil that has boundaries. This is much, much worse,” said Kerry St. Pe, the former head of the Louisiana oil spill response team. The Gulf spill is really a river of oil flowing out of the bottom of the Gulf according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

    In 1975, the New Orleans group, The Meters, released their album Fire on the Bayou. The album cover featured an apocalyptic orange and yellow painting of a bayou ablaze. In 2010 the idea of a fire on the bayou may well be coming true.

    Bill is Legal director of the center for Constitutional Rights and professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans. His email is

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    thank you for this information