Environment
 

Berm blather distracts us from the real issue: slapdash drilling

The Gulf Coast Leadership Summit was convened last week at the Hilton to remember and discuss the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the oil gusher that followed. The first day of the Summit included a forum with former Oil Spill Commission members as well as forums with political leaders from affected coastal regions.

Much of the initial news coverage of the Summit focused on Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser’s defense of his sand berm idea, which the Oil Spill Commission criticized in its final report. During the question-and-answer period that followed the Spill Commission session, Nungesser went up to the microphone and repeatedly stated that “to throw rocks at the berms today is unfair, because [President Obama] said we’re at war with the oil, and that’s how we responded.”

This was an odd defense. While Obama certainly used martial language to describe the stakes of the oil disaster, I can’t find any evidence that he ever publicly used the term “war.” That was Governor Jindal’s well-worn talking point. But even if Obama did use the w-word, war doesn’t automatically imply an “anything goes” mentality justifying dubious ideas like the sand berms. After all, the scientific consensus was that, even if the artificial berms could be built in time to confront the slicks, they would help little, if at all — and might actually worsen oil flows into the sensitive wetland estuaries they were supposed to protect.

I like that Nungesser was an outspoken, charismatic defender of his stricken Parish during the oil disaster. Better that than being a compliant milquetoast. But Nungesser latched on to the berm idea as if it were the only solution, and he wouldn’t let go. There were times last summer when it wasn’t clear where Nungesser’s passionate advocacy for his Parish ended, and where his self-justifying grandstanding began.

So, even though he was a panelist in the subsequent session, Nungesser used the Q&A period to defend his berm idea by arguing, essentially, Hey, the President said we were at war… what else could I do? Nungesser then blamed the Coast Guard for wasting far more money on ineffective clean-up efforts than he ever did with the $300 million berms. Yet, in the next breath, Nungesser proudly touted the berms as being “the largest coastal project in the history of the country.” In other words, he was all over the place, and the “conflict” he created during the Q&A dominated most (but not all) the media accounts of the conference’s opening day.

Lost in all this was an important point made by former Oil Spill Commission member Donald Boesch, who repeatedly stressed to the audience that Louisiana must demonstrate its commitment to “safety,” broadly conceived, before it can make a convincing argument to the rest of the country for coastal restoration. Boesch said that area leaders must show they are committed to risk reduction in the oil and gas industry — from rig worker safety to oil spill response to alleviating the environmental degradation caused, in part, by industry — if they want to ask for federal funding to pay for coastal restoration.

This seems like a crucial point to me, since all our oil clean up efforts over the past year will be for naught if we don’t work to preserve and restore the coast. That’s the real long-term “war” we face, and I hope we can fight it as Boesch advises: smartly, strategically, and successfully.

A recent Stephanie Grace column titled “A wasted chance for safer waters” makes me doubt that possibility, though.

A year after the rig exploded off the state’s coast, killing 11 and unleashing a deep sea gusher that took months to permanently seal, those whose constituents were most directly affected by the catastrophe are actually among the loudest defenders of big oil’s right to drill in the Gulf of Mexico unimpeded.For those who understand the state, this should come as no surprise. We all know that Louisiana long ago cut its deal with the industry, offering access to abundant natural resources in exchange for money and jobs.

That doesn’t mean the spill didn’t offer a perfect opportunity to renegotiate the terms of that deal, to demand safer practices and more sensible regulation.

And yet the fundamental dynamic hasn’t changed a bit — even after everything we’ve learned in the interim about shortcuts and missteps BP and its partners took, about the phoned-in safety plans from many major firms, about the historically cozy relations between the companies who work in the Gulf and their federal overseers, and about the fact that nobody was remotely prepared to deal with an accident so far below the surface.

If the spill didn’t shift the political winds in Louisiana, the accident did cause one sea change elsewhere. Before, there was talk of expanding offshore drilling to new areas. Now, nobody else will likely care to take that risk, not after everything they’ve just witnessed.That means Louisiana had the grounds to ask for, to demand, better.

Grace calls this “just one more opportunity squandered.” But I’d say it’s much, much worse than that. Our non-reaction to the oil industry after the Macondo blowout shows that there isn’t any imaginable “opportunity” that we wouldn’t squander.Years before Macondo, the terms of the state’s “deal” with the oil industry had already changed as the oil industry’s responsibility for much of the coast’s degradation and erosion became all too obvious. But to not renegotiate this “deal” after the largest offshore oil gusher in American history… well that goes far beyond squandered “opportunities.” That’s more akin to Louisiana resigning itself to a permanent case of “battered-state syndrome.”

Seriously, after this non-response to Macondo, what type of “wake up call” would actually make us alter the terms of the state’s abusive, perhaps lethal deal with Big Oil? What will it take for Louisiana’s leaders to truly embrace risk reduction and environmental safety as the top priority for our coast?

Last year an oil disaster occurred off the shores of a slow-motion coastal loss disaster, and a year later our Congressional leaders have decided their top political priority is railing about gas prices and the lack of oil drilling in the gulf. It’s madness, I say.

The window of opportunity to save Louisiana’s irreplaceable coastal region will slam shut  permanently in a very few years. And yet here’s Nungesser trying to put words in the President’s mouth to retroactively justify the silly berm fiasco, while the state’s Congressional delegation acts as if its greatest duty is kowtowing further(!) to an industry that is partly responsible for coastal Louisiana being the fastest disappearing land mass on the planet.

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