How to hold mineral extraction industries accountable for the damage done to our state — that was the topic as two-dozen civic and environmental leaders convened earlier this month at a West End restaurant to discuss ways to work together. A remarkable cross-section of local and regional activists turned up. Longtime coastal-restoration stalwarts dined next to Tea Partyers, who have been spurred to action by the sinkhole disaster at Bayou Corne.
This was more than a mere meet-and-greet luncheon or info-event. This was a gathering of prospective allies in search of a strategy. Former Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie eloquently moderated the proceedings, which included six presentations on environmental threats posed by energy infrastructure, petrochemical accidents, and pipeline and well leaks.
Over platters of fish, talk at one table turned to a recent article in Harper’s Magazine titled “Dirty South: The foul legacy of Louisiana oil.” The focus of the piece is the oil industry’s resistance to legacy lawsuits, in which landowners sue oil companies for polluting leased tracts. Journalist Ken Silverstein’s piece was rife with interesting snippets, including a quote by Louisiana Oil and Gas Association president Don Briggs:
During our conversation he [Briggs] vented about topics ranging from the fracking rules the EPA was scheduled to release later in the year, which he warned could shut down the domestic oil-and-gas industry, to what he saw as a shameless scramble by residents along the Gulf of Mexico to get a piece of the $20 billion compensation fund created following the Deepwater Horizon spill. “BP is getting raped and pillaged by anyone who had any sort of business on the Gulf Coast,” he said with a snort.
BP’s Macondo blowout continues to shellac the coast with slicks and tarballs, but in Briggs’ view, it’s the claimants who are the real villains. They’re raping the giant oil firm responsible for the biggest offshore spill in history.
After the various presentations, Lt. General Russel Honore (U.S. Army, retired) — the man who led the military into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — brought the room together with a frank talk titled “Fighting for Our Survival: Our Common Cause.”
I’d expected a variation of the speech Honore gave at the Rising Tide media conference in September. There he delivered a rousing indictment of Louisiana’s extraction and petrochemical industries for their failure to own the damage they cause and clean up the mess they make.
Despite the folksy, common-sense tenor of Honore’s remarks, his message was radical: Big Oil’s deep pockets control our state government and warp our democracy; it’s time to fight back against prolonged environmental injustice by polluters. Honore went so far as to endorse acts of civil disobedience to get our oil-smitten political leaders to take heed.
Honore’s remarks stirred astonishment and wonder in his audience, a group not used to people of his prominence and pedigree calling out oil and gas. See the video here for the entire speech. (Full disclosure: I helped organize the conference and The Lens was a sponsor.)
Honore’s Rising Tide keynote address was inspirational; his speech at the luncheon was more about the nuts and bolts of building a successful political movement. He sustained core themes through both speeches — fairness, accountability— but focused in the second on how to fuse disparate groups (and individuals) into a collaboration with a single goal. Like a general plotting battlefront logistics, he pinpointed the enemy’s points of vulnerability and used military metaphors to illustrate strategies that could lead to victory.
It’s been three months since author and levee board vice chairman John Barry announced an historic coastal-erosion lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies. Barry responded to immediate pushback from Gov. Bobby Jindal by saying the suit — which has not been withdrawn — at the very least had started a conversation about the extraction industry’s role in coastal loss. At the time I felt like Barry set the bar a little low.
Relentless in its opposition to the lawsuit, the Jindal administration succeeded in dumping Barry from the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, as the levee board is now called. But the “conversation” Barry initiated continues. Last week Barry told The Lens he intended to form a citizens’ group to carry on the fight to fund the state’s coastal-restoration plans.
Barry wasn’t present at the Lakefront lunch, but I suspect it won’t be long before his group unites with the activists and leaders that Honore energized. It’s apparent that only a large unified front will be able to prevail politically. And even if disparate environmentalists forge a united front, there’s no guarantee such a movement will succeed. Pressuring oil companies to expeditiously “fix the coast” they helped break is a galactically ambitious undertaking. This is, after all, Louisiana.
But for how long is it Louisiana? That’s the question.
South Louisiana must change its ways to save itself. That means awakening Baton Rouge to an awareness that there’s more to leadership than pandering slavishly to oil interests and pocketing their campaign donations.
Here’s hoping the wake-up calls from Honore and Barry trigger a movement our political and business leaders can no longer ignore.