So there’s this oil spill off the Gulf Coast. One that, depending on who you ask, is either shaping up to be one of the worst environmental disasters in memory or something that will be cleaned up in no time.
I hope the second sentiment is correct. But I think the first one is closer to the truth.
What I fear every bit as much as the environmental devastation is the effect of the longstanding local myopia that arguably helped contribute to it in the first place.
BP, the company that operates the damaged well, has said that even though the cracked seal is technically the fault of a subcontracted firm, it will take responsibility for and foot the bill for the accident. Good. I’m sad to be impressed by that near-formality, but I am. I’m glad someone (meaning BP, as defined by the Supreme Court) has stepped up and said, “Hey, this isn’t right.”
To be honest, I wasn’t holding my breath. And not because I like the smell of wafting petroleum.
Louisiana loves its oil and gas industry. The Gulf coast is one of the Western Hemisphere’s most petroleum-rich deposits. Entire communities evolve around drilling and supply companies. Many a college student has dropped out fast because they can make more money in even a low-level oil job than most graduate students ever will. Everyone in the southern part of the state knows/loves someone who is or has worked offshore. “Two on, two off” needs no explanation. My home city of Lafayette has an entire section of town called the Oil Center, where the Petroleum Club hosts some the city’s fanciest events. Dick Cheney stopped by Lafayette numerous times as vice president and remains in sterling regard. Lafayette, like many area cities, is absolutely awash in oil money (and, like oil to water, the economic separation is obvious).
And so what if oil pollutes and wrecks the environment and is a leading contributor to the hastened erosion of Louisiana’s marsh coastline? So what if it, combined with toxic waste incineration plants in the southeast and an unhealthy distrust of oversight, gives that part of Louisiana the nickname “Cancer Alley”? As the e-mail forward says, “It smells like money to us.” And what poor person’s ever given you a job?
Thus, as far as the industry goes, you’re not allowed to say anything bad about it, ever.
Well, I’m gonna say something bad about it. Oil is a toxic and nonrenewable resource, and its industry is stacked with a deep-pocketed lobby and a loyal constituency only too willing to accept dangerous working conditions and a laissez-faire attitude toward government regulation.
This isn’t to disparage anyone who works in the industry; hell, several of my friends, relatives and even my dad have worked offshore at some point. If anything, I feel for them, because the nearly forgotten fact about the leak is that the explosion causing it killed 11 people. Were they sufficiently qualified for the work? Were they tired from a long deployment? Was it a case of them being at wrong place at the wrong time? We need to know the answers to these and other questions.
The fallout of this spill could also devastate the state’s bustling seafood industry. Two for the price of one, so to speak. For that reason alone, this incident is a slap-in-the-face wakeup call for us. And by “us,” I don’t just mean my home state — I mean the entire world. We need alternative fuels. We need tighter independent controls on oil extraction. We need better labor arrangements. We need a multitude of contingency plans.
But, most of all, we need to drop the almost spiritual attachment we have with oil that hinders us from addressing these needs. What good are the jobs to Louisiana if everyone’s dying of cancer or from offshore explosions?
Quality of life cannot be measured in dollar and cents. But it can be measured in a poisoned sea.