Yes, nutria feed on wetlands vegetation. Do they dredge canals and drill for oil? Not so much. Credit: US Geological Survey

Eight hours. That’s how long a recent hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources lasted.

I’ve worked on natural resource issues in this state since 1999, and I’ve longed for this committee to pay serious attention to a host of issues: the oil industry’s 27,000 abandoned oil wells in our Gulf of Mexico, the impact of the state’s 17 oil refineries on climate change, the thousands of oil industry accidents every year. These are urgent matters impacting our health, our environment and the ability to even live along the state’s southern margins in the years to come.

But what did the committee do with those eight hours? They questioned the Department of Natural Resources and the Governor’s staff, impugning plans to make the oil industry pay for its destruction of the coast.

The idea of holding the industry accountable didn’t start with Governor John Bel Edwards. Coastal parishes, including those with Republican district attorneys and conservative council members, have already filed suits demanding reparation. Indeed, the contractual obligation to clean up after themselves was written right into the permits that gave oil and gas drillers and pipeline companies otherwise free rein over our wetlands, starting decades ago.

Instead of grappling with these realities, the members of the committee focused on politics, showing their hand for the upcoming legislative session. Clearly, their goal is to paint a Democratic governor as hostile to the oil industry, then try to use the issue to defeat him come election time. And of course doing Big Oil’s bidding — exonerating the industry for its environmental crimes against the state — is a surefire way to assure a steady stream of contributions to their re-election campaigns and pet causes.

The old politics of kowtowing to the oil industry — the politics that corruptly enriched Huey Long and Leander Perez and ravaged our coast — belong in the junk bin of state history.

If successful, these legislators will shift the liability — the cost — to us taxpayers. This will come to hundreds of millions of dollars. A wise few on the House Committee on Natural Resources realize that it’s time to stand up to the oil industry. But these committee members — less vocal and seemingly outnumbered — were drowned out during the hearing.

The committee’s performance was a sure sign that, once again, Louisiana’s state legislature is prepared to roll over for the deep-pocketed lobbyists who represent even deeper-pocketed Big Oil. Here are their arguments and the counter arguments.

#1 If it weren’t for the Governor’s threat of a lawsuit, the oil industry would voluntarily pay for the damages.

State Rep. Ray Garofalo, a Republican from quickly sinking St. Bernard Parish, was insistent on this argument and stated it repeatedly. He ignored the fact that the parishes have already filed lawsuits, and he had no answer for the obvious counterpoint: that the oil industry has had over 50 years to step forward and voluntarily pay for what it has destroyed. What’s more, Governor Edwards has repeatedly said he will sit down with oil industry representatives to resolve the matter without lawsuits. The oil industry has yet to take him up on his offer.

#2 The oil industry will leave Louisiana.

State Rep. Blake Miguez, a Republican whose district crosses Iberia and Vermilion parishes, made this statement early and often. Other committee members joined in asserting that making the oil industry pay for the coastal damage creates a hostile atmosphere. “The oil industry will move out of Louisiana!” they cried.

Are the committee members serious? The oil industry drills where there’s oil. They drill in Nigeria and the Sudan and Iraq and Libya. Hostile environments? These are war zones, as a representative from the Department of Natural Resources pointed out.

#3 The oil industry provides jobs so we should keep our mouths shut.

By this logic no employer would ever be culpable for malfeasance. The fact is that oil is a boom-and-bust industry, employing people in good times and laying them off in bad times, as even a brief look at statistics from the Louisiana Workforce Commission demonstrates.

But let’s get realistic about those jobs.

  • Labor exploitation: A rig explosion in 2012 resulted in the death and injury of Filipino workers. The men were called “guest workers,” a euphemism for cheap labor exploited at the expense of Louisiana jobs. The Committee on Natural Resources should open an investigation into the dubious hiring practices behind this so- called “job creation.”
  • Where are the women? We are stuck, circa 1950, with the notion that rig work is for men only. Even now, when computers and chemistry are at the forefront of oil technology, women are systematically excluded from these well-paying jobs. When will the Committee on Natural Resources hold hearings on this inequity? The industry gets away with it, in part, because of the culture of the state legislature itself. Last spring, Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard, from the St. Francisville area, amended a bill to require Bourbon Street strippers to be young and thin. He thought it was funny. This is what employment looks like for women in Louisiana when an entire industry excludes them from jobs that pay well.
  • Workplace safety? Oil industry jobs are dangerous. People die. They are maimed in explosions and fires. The oil industry will tout statistics about how little “lost time to injury” days they’ve had. But talk, as I have, to members of the United Steelworkers, the oil workers’ union. They’ll tell you that those statistics are manipulated. Refinery managers will order a hurt man to sit in an office all day so he will technically be at work, just to make the statistics look good. How many people die in the solar industry? How many people die doing coastal restoration? These are the jobs that would be plentiful if members of the House Committee on Natural Resources had vision – a sincere vision not warped by lobbyists’ checkbooks.
  • Jobs for the family man? Rig work is cyclical — anywhere from two weeks to nearly a month offshore. It tears families apart. The disruptiveness of an on-again, off-again man in the house leaves some women wishing they could just be left alone to raise the kids. Some families get used to it, of course, but many are destroyed. Just ask family counselors in Houma.
  • As the House Committee on Natural Resources met, on Oct. 19, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser announced that the seafood and tourism industries generate $14 billion in annual revenue.  Oil spills and explosions threaten these industries, as charter boat captains can tell you. Their business has yet to fully recover from the BP Disaster, and that was six years ago.
  • Securing our future? Jobs won’t matter if our communities no longer exist. What happens to the job seekers from coastal communities when those towns wash away due to the global pollution from fossil fuels that has triggered rising seas?

#4 The Department of Natural Resources did not enforce the permits that would have required the oil industry to fill in the canals and channels it dug.

This argument is among the most difficult to swallow. During the hearing lawmakers feigned surprise that the Department of Natural Resources had not enforced the permits for years. Many of these same lawmakers and their predecessors systematically prevented enforcement, creating a culture in which the oil industry dominated the supposed regulator. The faux shock at the DNR’s failure to enforce the permits is a dangerous downward spiral: Look past the problems; then, when a problem becomes so bad that you can’t ignore it, ignore the fact that you urged noncompliance; then try retroactively to protect the offender.

#5 The nutria did it!

Yes, it’s true. The nutria have harmed our protective coastal wetlands. And if the legislators want to pursue those who introduced nutria (including the McIlhenny family of Tabasco fame) then they should do so. But no alternative cause — from nutria to building levees along the Mississippi River — absolves the oil industry of responsibility for its damages. And the nutria argument during the committee hearing was juvenile, made as a joke, when the reality facing us — entire towns soon to be wiped off the map — is no laughing matter.

Some of the legislators who make these arguments actually believe them. Some are motivated out of genuine, if misguided, concern for oil workers in their districts. Most, true to ignominious Louisiana tradition, are simply selling their votes in exchange for “consulting work” or continuing contributions to their campaign funds.

With vision and smarts, Louisiana would learn the lesson from this most recent oil bust and seize the opportunity to become a leader in 21st century energy technologies. We’ve got the sun, we’ve got the wind and the mightiest river on the continent. We’ve got engineering schools that can brainstorm and guide this transition. There are at least as many good jobs in renewable energy as there ever were in oil.

And there are thousands of jobs to be had in robust coastal restoration projects that the oil industry could and should fund.

The old politics of kowtowing to the oil industry — the politics that corruptly enriched Huey Long and Leander Perez and ravaged our coast — belong in the junk bin of state history. Our governor and elected officials from the most impacted areas along the coast understand this. Members of the House Committee on Natural Resources should follow their lead.

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, began her career in Nigeria, collaborating with local communities to address oil companies’ destruction of the Niger Delta.