Two years ago, in the spring of 2016, I happily joined hundreds of people as we stormed the Superdome to disrupt an auction of oil leases in our Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of acres would be going to the highest bidder, and we were there to take a stand. “No new drilling,” was our cry that day, a call to protect the Gulf of Mexico and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods.
In the last couple of weeks, governors and elected officials from states around the country, Republicans included, have echoed that cry as the Trump administration schemes to open millions of acres of U.S. waters to drilling. Up and down the West Coast, the Atlantic coast and in Florida, officials are pushing back against the president’s reckless and ignorant plan. Even Chris Christie, the blowhard Governor of New Jersey, is against it.
Science and common sense tell us that continued drilling spells doom for the planet, while menacing the marshes and shorelines we hold dear.
But the politicians in Louisiana? They aren’t crying foul. Not even as the fossil-fuel industry raises global temperatures, our coast washes away and sea levels rise.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, actually lauded Trump’s plan, even though his district, which includes Grand Isle and Port Fourchon, is arguably more vulnerable to climate change than any other in the nation. Scalise said more drilling is good for our economy, and Louisiana U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and others in our delegation also chimed in, echoing worn out talking points familiar from endless repetition by oil industry flacks.
The whole premise of this claim — that oil is a great job builder and source of government revenue (however destructive of the environment) — is a shaky one. The last couple of years illustrate why.
After the 2016 Superdome auction, a reporter called to tell me that the auction had attracted the fewest bids on record. Some 300 of us had shouted at oil executives, telling them to stop drilling, but it turns out that we had a powerful ally: economics. The bidding on the leases that day was feeble because an energy glut had driven down the price of oil, making exploration largely unprofitable.
In pursuing every possible means of extreme fossil-fuel extraction — especially fracking, one of the dirtiest and most environmentally destructive of them all — the fossil fuel industry, including the part of it that produces natural gas, was drowning in overproduction. The industry’s own rapaciousness had backfired.
The inconvenient truth was that misguided business practices crashed the price of oil from more than $100 a barrel to barely $20. Oil plays were abandoned, and workers joined the unemployment lines.
These economic realities have gone unacknowledged by our delegation. Scalise and Cassidy and their colleagues, including U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, prefer to play up another false talking point handed out to politicians by industry lobbying groups such as the American Petroleum Institute: the claim that regulation is the culprit behind the on-again, off-again swoons in the price of fossil fuels.
As the price of oil collapsed following the OPEC-induced shortages in the 1970s, industry talking heads assured us that it would bounce back. Today it teeters at about half the pre-crash peak it reached three years ago. Ride it out, we were told. The good times will soon be back.
This is the argument I heard as a child growing up in Lafayette, the heart of Louisiana oil country. Overproduction in the early 1980s triggered a devastating, decades-long economic depression, and Louisiana has been riding a boom-bust cycle ever since. Why can’t we learn?
Today the price per barrel of oil has breached the $65 mark, a figure that analysts say can get the industry back on its feet. But let’s stop and contemplate economic reality for a minute: With Trump proposing to turn the entire U.S. coastline into a drilling field, an even bigger energy glut looms, one that will wreak the same havoc on workers and our economy.
Does oil have a future? Of course it does, even in fast-sinking Louisiana. But the smart money recognizes that oil’s future — like coal’s — is an intelligent, well-managed phase-out as alternatives come into their own and technologies evolve. (Note that Trump in the past few days also imposed a tariff on imported solar panels, another gift to coal and oil that most economists expect will slow the shift to alternative fuels.)
In the meantime, if the industry were forced to obey the law, there would be plenty of work for oil workers: repairing and maintaining the rusted, aging and leaking infrastructure of pipelines, abandoned oil wells, offshore platforms and refineries. An inspection of ExxonMobil’s refinery in Baton Rouge revealed leaking valves wrapped in plastic bags and duct tape.
Our Congressional delegation should get to work forcing the industry to properly staff what they’ve already got rather than egg on this insatiable push for more, more, more production. And while they’re at it, they should insist on full-time, good-paying jobs rather than the contract labor the industry relies on as a way around a fair deal for its workers.
Elsewhere around the world and even in Trump’s America, businesses and government are allied in farsighted recognition that oil is on the way out. Even Big Oil is retooling for the change. They just don’t want the word to spread too fast in places like Louisiana.
Does anyone really think that opening up the nation’s entire coastline to drilling won’t trigger overproduction far worse for Louisiana than our recent rush into fracking?
Congressman Graves acknowledges the syndrome but then gets cause and effect exactly backwards. He blames federal regulations for the boom-bust cycle I remember so vividly from the sweeping Oil Patch crash I lived through as a child.
Worse yet, in their headlong rush to make the oil industry great again — as great as it was, perhaps, before 2010’s BP Disaster coated the Gulf with the largest oil spill in U.S. history — Graves and the rest of the Louisiana delegation are on board to rewrite or kill rules that reduce the huge risks associated with offshore oil and gas drilling.
Really? This is the best they can do in memory of the 11 rig workers who died on the BP platform? Roll back laws enacted to prevent a repeat of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history?
In their remarks supporting the Trump drill-everywhere plan, our Congressional delegation clung to the jobs argument. So let’s talk jobs. Let’s really talk jobs.
Jobs? What about the research and engineering jobs that Louisiana is losing to other states and nations (China, Germany) that are inventing the solar future. Locked in the past, we are chained to an oily economy that ravages public revenue streams, leading to the cutbacks that are rapidly reducing LSU to second-tier status among major research universities.
Jobs? What about all those jobs we don’t get because major corporations are reluctant to locate in a polluted state with a boom-bust economy and the uncertainties that come with it, a state still prostrate before an extraction industry that treats us like a Third World country.
Jobs? Many of these jobs don’t go to Louisiana residents but to migrant workers and people from out of state. That’s why there’s a building boom of extended-stay motels along Interstate 10 and across the Oil Patch, as well as “man camps,” housing constructed by industry for its itinerant workers.
Ask any man — women are pretty much excluded — out on the rigs. He’ll tell you that his co-workers are as likely to be Russian or Filipino as the good ol’ boys I grew up with in Cajun Louisiana.
Jobs? What about the army of workers — thousands of them — that it will take to cap leaking wells, decommission antiquated refineries and clean up the mess Big Oil has made of our coastal wetlands? The coast — as is well known — has been sliced and diced with canals that hasten saltwater intrusion and the death of marsh vegetation and wildlife.
These delicate ecosystems need to be nursed back to life before yet another Category 5 hurricane plows into Louisiana with force enough to overwhelm our levees and flood walls. Short of the rare lawsuit, like the one brought against BP, the industry has just ignored its contractual obligation to clean up decades of environmental devastation.
Jobs? What about the squadrons of lawyers needed to bring a defiant industry to heel?
What about the army of vocational educators we’ll need to provide training for jobs in the renewable energy industry, jobs that are safe and won’t subject workers to dirty, dangerous work, jobs that won’t disrupt families by subjecting them to the “two weeks on, two weeks off” oil rig work cycle — a convenience to industry that is calamitous for families.
Bottom line: Our delegation — ignoring science and our own economic hard times — stands out as a national embarrassment, one of a very few delegations dumb enough to take Trump’s deal. Florida, even under right-wing Republican Governor Rick Scott, has won promises from the White House that coastal waters — and the view from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort — will be spared.
Grand Isle? Not so much.
Maybe reality would set in if, for even a few minutes, our delegation would leave the marble topped bars and fancy restaurants and Superdome suites where the oil industry woos them. It’s long past time they paid more attention to the men and women who must actually live in the oil economy, the people whose coastlines are washing away and whose livelihoods whipsaw from boom to bust.
Our Superdome action did stir at least one politician to do something — but not on behalf of the people of Louisiana. Demonstrating his unerring instinct to play defense for Big Oil, Graves sponsored legislation that barred the public — people like us — from attending future lease auctions. Predictably, it took a lie to get that one through Congress. Graves argued that the goal of the legislation was to facilitate transparency and modernize the system. His bill, however, banned the public from participating in person. The real intent was clear: to box out a concerned and justifiably angry public, to prevent future outcry like the one we delivered loud and clear.
The rest of the country has treated Trump’s latest offshore gambit with pitchforks and fire. It’s what we did in the Superdome in 2016. It’s what we will continue to do for Louisiana.
Anne Rolfes is founder and leader of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.