Louisiana officials defend oil and gas industry, criticize President Biden’s order pausing offshore drilling

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on August 21, 2019 in Norco, Louisiana. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation and officials from the state’s executive branch lined up Wednesday alongside parish-level politicians and oil and gas lobbyists to express concern with or outright condemn a Jan. 20 executive order from President Joe Biden pausing offshore drilling. The president’s executive order, issued in the hours after he was sworn into office, announces the administration’s emphasis on environmental justice, conservation and renewable energy. It pauses all new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and offshore waters and mandates a review of all leases and permits related to fossil fuel. 

At the start of the joint meeting of the Louisiana House and Senate Natural Resources committees, House Natural Resources Chair Jean-Paul Coussan (R-Lafayette) said that Biden’s executive order is based on “a misunderstanding of our oil and gas industry.” Coussan said Louisiana’s oil and gas industry “has shown a commitment to more safe and responsible practices, investing billions in technologies that reduce harmful pollutants, and is committed to making these enhancements while producing enough energy to transition away from being dependent on foreign energy.”

In 2010, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore killed 11 workers on the rig, spilled 130 millions gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killed wildlife by the millions and sickened many of the people hired to clean up the mess. But Coussan said Wednesday, “Since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, the offshore industry has made tremendous strides.”

Wednesday’s meeting lasted lasted more than four hours and featured video testimony from Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and in-chamber testimony from Republican U.S. Representatives Clay Higgins and Garrett Graves.  No one who testified Wednesday spoke ill of the oil and gas industry or in support of Biden’s executive order. After hearing from the congressional delegation, the state’s executive branch agencies, officials from Lafayette, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and industry representatives, Coussan said the committee didn’t have time to read the written testimony submitted by other organizations but said that those written comments would be “submitted into the record for posterity.”

Kimberly Davis Reyher, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, said in an email Wednesday that she stayed away from the chamber because of COVID-19 concerns but that she wished that her written statement had been read aloud. 

Reyher wrote, “CRCL believes that Louisiana should receive its fair share of (Outer Continental Shelf) revenues derived from our coastal waters and that those revenues should be used to construct coastal projects to restore and protect our state”; that “oil and gas production has experienced a dramatic downturn in the past few years”; and that her nonprofit “recognizes the importance of the state and its industries contemplating development of other forms of energy production.”  She writes that the new administration’s expressed priorities of focusing on environmental justice, holding polluters accountable and reducing greenhouse emissions “are important for coastal communities in Louisiana and should be considered by the state Legislature.”

Most of those speaking out against Biden’s executive order also said that they agree with his stated goals of protecting the environment. Many also said that they weren’t opposed to gradually phasing in alternative forms of energy. They’re chiefly opposed, they said, to oil jobs being eliminated with no replacements in sight.

Matthew Block, who serves as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive counsel, said that the governor hasn’t spoken to President Biden about his executive order but earlier this week spoke to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm “about the same issues we’re talking about this morning. So, the governor intends to be an advocate for Louisiana, an advocate for Louisiana workers, an advocate for Louisiana industry. And lastly, an advocate for our coast.” 

Block said, “It is a false choice to say we can either have one or the other, we can have oil and gas exploration and environmental protections. We know in Louisiana that we can do both and that’s what the governor has advocated for his entire career.”

Lauren Chauvin, the director of energy and environmental quality for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said, “I am not here fighting to hold on to an energy economy of the past. I am here fighting for the future. We are fighting for the proper evolution for energy done smartly with timely choices that match policy with technological, economic and environmental priorities for everyone. We’re fighting for energy and industry of the 21st century, one that makes conservation, innovation and corporate citizenships their top priority.”

“I think most people will look at the evolution of technology in the energy sector (and) agree that eventually we will turn to alternatives for transportation for power generation,” Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory said. “The problem is that the current federal administration is trying to dismantle our current energy economy well before alternative technologies are ready….Preemptively crippling the sources of energy that currently drive the US and global economy is foolish and wrongheaded.”

Guillory said between summer 2014 and December 2020, the Lafayette metro area lost 58 percent of its oil and gas jobs, a decline, he said, that “has been devastating to our local economy.” Between January 2000 and January 2021, Guillory said, “the combination of expanded regulatory constraints and market forces resulting in low prices have led to a 90% collapse in offshore activity.”

Anne Rolfes, the director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, wasn’t at Wednesday’s meeting at the state Capitol, but she said, oil and gas proponents are making too big a deal over new leases.  “The executive order has to do with leases that might be drilled years from now,” she said. “They still have plenty of live leases they could drill if they had enough demand for their product.”

But that’s the industry’s biggest problem, she said: lack of demand.

She said the market forces Guillory mentioned when he talked about Lafayette’s loss of jobs ought to be a clue to Louisiana that Louisiana needs to chart a new path.

“If you look at the numbers on the leases,” Rolfes said, “there have been very, very few bids every year. I think they’re wasting their time bloviating on this subject. I don’t know why they don’t spend their energy addressing the structural problems in their industry.”