Commentary

Louisiana is a safer place for Big Oil than Louisianians | Jarvis DeBerry

July 9, 2021 8:58 am

The Louisiana Highway 1 Bridge, also known as the Gateway to the Gulf Expressway, rises above the marshland and coastal waters on August 25, 2019, in Leeville. Louisiana has been losing its coastal landscape at the rate of almost a football fields worth of land every hour.. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Rep. Danny McCormick’s attempt during the Louisiana Legislature’s session to have Louisiana designated a “fossil fuel sanctuary state” would never have passed constitutional muster. The state can’t just up and decide that its laws take priority over the country’s. But in calling out the absurdity of the Oil City Republican’s legislation, there’s a chance that some of us lost sight of the reality that Louisiana — to our great peril — has long been a fossil fuel sanctuary state.

No, the state can’t protect Big Oil from the feds, but it protects it from everybody else — especially Louisianians who want the industry held accountable for its damage to the coast and its toxic effects on our air. And as accurate as it is to say that the state’s capitulation to the oil industry will destroy us, it’s even more accurate to say it has already destroyed us plenty.

In “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015,” Tulane Professor Andy Horowitz explains how 90 years of bad decisions made the hurricane the catastrophic event it was. One of the biggest of the bad decisions was Louisiana celebrating the arrival of Big Oil just like Troy celebrated the arrival of that big horse.

Referring to the 1920s and ‘30s, Horowitz writes, “Southern Democrats like (St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes District Attorney Leander) Perez, icons for almost an almost fascist level of government power, used that power in the service of the owners and shareholders of Standard Oil, Freeport Sulphur, and other transnational corporate interests. Working with local government, these firms rewrote Louisiana’s Constitution and redistributed its mineral wealth. Even as Governor Huey Long promoted quasi-socialist reforms to make ‘Every Man a King,’ and Perez boasted of his parish’s ‘Utopia’ with full employment, they were transferring huge amounts of public resources to private markets. Once they yielded influence to the oil interests, local politicians never regained the reins of power.”

Have Louisiana politicians ever demanded those reins? Even now, many act as if it’s important that Louisiana be thankful and deferential to those oil companies lest they storm off in a huff and leave oil in the ground. That deference dooms us.

As Horowitz writes, Louisiana politicians signaled generations ago that they’re OK with private companies getting the profit from oil exploration and the public paying the cost.

That cost includes the destruction of wetlands that previously dampened the blow of incoming hurricanes.

One could argue that the Perezes of the world didn’t know that giving the oil companies carte blanche in Louisiana would make Plaquemines Parish, as The New Yorker puts it, “among the fastest-disappearing places on Earth.”  

But today’s officials can’t plead ignorance. They have seen what has happened and what is yet happening. And they’ve certainly been told that oil and gas exploration bears the lion’s share of the blame for our land loss.

But the oil industry’s legacy of destruction gives them no pause. They remain willing to cater to the industry’s every whim.

Although the legislation naming Louisiana a sanctuary state for fossil fuels didn’t pass, legislation making it easier for natural gas companies to avoid penalties after leaks did. There’s also a new law that gives industrial facilities the ability to self-report environmental violations to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in exchange for reduced fines and the right to keep the public from knowing about the violations for two years. Lawmakers also passed laws against the solar energy industry, which doesn’t cause air pollution, and gave the go-ahead to chemical recycling, which reportedly does.

Together Louisiana, Louisiana Budget Project, the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice have given the Louisiana Legislature an ‘F’ for their stewardship of Louisiana’s air, land and water. Erin Hansen, who helped create the scorecard, said that “it feels like we’re moving backward at a time when science tells us we can’t do that.”

Oh, we can do it; we just can’t do it and survive.

Horowitz looks at the 90 years of decisions that preceded Hurricane Katrina’s destructiveness to challenge the common idea that the disaster was an acute, out-of-nowhere event or that it counts as an “act of God.”  We’d do better to think of it as the consequences of allowing an industry to tear up the coast with impunity.

And to be sure, there are yet consequences to come. Because the state’s leaders continue to make Louisiana a safer place for oil companies to operate than for human beings to live.

“Katrina, A History: 1915–2015” is the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2021 Humanities Book of the Year. Join me and author Andy Horowitz in a virtual conversation about his book July 9 at 11 a.m. Registration details are here.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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