fb tracking

Five days in Louisiana

Public Citizen energy organizer Allison Fisher recently traveled to Louisiana for a firsthand look at how the oil spill was affecting residents, clean-up workers and the local ecology.  Her trip included attending a program on lessons from Exxon Valdez at Louisiana State University, speaking on the steps of the state house in Baton Rouge, meeting with agents at a BP claims center, touring a clean-up staging area, participating in a bird survey on an island in the Barataria Bay, and interviewing a Grand Isle oysterman and his family over lunch at their home. Her journal entries below reflect her experience during her five day trip down the bayou.

Journal 6.17.2010:  Made right?

Have we learned from the second biggest environmental disaster in US history?

President Obama in his address to the American people on Tuesday night, called the oil leak that continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, “the worst environmental disaster in US history.”  In limited detail, Obama, laid out his plan to respond to the spill, restore the livelihoods and environment impacted by the disaster and wean our economy off fossil fuels. But does he draw any lessons from the story that took 20 years to unfold in Prince William Sound, Alaska?  Will the administration’s plan bring justice to the Gulf Coast communities that never came to Prince William Sound Alaska?

On my first night in Baton Rouge, LA, I sat in an auditorium on the campus of LSU and watched a documentary on the legacy of Exxon Valdez, called “Black Wave”.  I saw footage from a 1989 town hall meeting in Cordova, AK, where an Exxon spokesperson told the angry citizens that they were in good hands, “Exxon will make you whole”, he pledged.  The initial civil action lawsuit, involving 32,000 plaintiffs, found Exxon “reckless” and rendered an award of $5 billion.  Over the course of the next 14 years, Exxon’s onslaught of appeals eventually landed the case before the US Supreme Court.  In February 2008, the court ruled that Exxon’s compensation to the people of Prince William Sound would amount to $500 million dollars -one tenth of the original award.

The American people have heard the same promise from BP, a promise to “make it right”.  If “make it right” is a different version of the same “make you whole” play book, the communities that surround the Gulf of Mexico have reason to be nervous.  If the government can intervene and retroactive laws can be enacted to ensure just compensation for victims and full accountability for environmental clean-up and restoration, some level of wrong could be made right.

But will $20 billion dollars – escrow fund negotiated to compensate Gulf coast communities -be enough to make the Gulf and its inhabitants whole again?  Even if BP is able to avoid bankruptcy and finance the fund and the claims are handled transparently and in a timely manner, one thing is clear, communities that line the Gulf of Mexico will never be the same.

As folks were leaving the auditorium after the documentary, I heard an English professor recount the incident of one of her LSU colleague who recently visited the Gulf to obtain sand and water samples.  “They took her samples and kicked her off the beach,” she said.

You don’t need to know you history to know that’s not right.

Journal 6.18.2010: This is what a Corporatocracy looks like.

On July 18, I spoke before a crowd of local activists on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge.  On the second day of the two day rally – intended to draw attention to the extreme financial and environmental risk of dirty energy reliance and corporate negligence – I was to speak on the history of BP’s safety and environmental violations.  However, the developments that unfolded in the few days leading up to my turn at the podium prompted me to shift the focus of my speech.

The night before I headed to Baton Rouge, I watched President Obama’s address on the oil spill crisis. During the address he identified one of the major causes associated with the Deepwater Horizon explosion – oil industry self-regulation.  Obama admitted that the scandal plagued Mineral Management Service (MMS), tasked with overseeing offshore drilling operations, was allowing oil corporations to call the regulatory shots.  An oil leak of tremendous magnitude would never happen, BP claimed.  Trust us.  And MMS obliged.  Seriously!? Yup.

The day that I arrived in Baton Rouge, President Obama met with top BP officials in an effort to secure a $20 billion commitment to compensate victims of the oil disaster.  The agreement mandates that BP pay $5 billion annually over the next four years into an escrow account set aside to compensate those whose livelihoods have been destroyed as a result of their negligence.  In the press conference that followed BP’s chairman of the board, Carl-Henric Svanberg, stated that the deal was proof that BP “cares about the small people.”  Sorry? What!?

The following day, in a congressional hearing U.S. Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), put his public service role on pause and pushed forward is private sector job aspirations by publicly apologizing to BP CEO, Tony Hayward.  The representative expressed his sincere regret that the corporation was being held accountable for creating the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the U.S.  No he didn’t!?  Yes, he did.

While Tony was in the hot seat in Washington, DC, the Louisiana senate was holding their own hearing.  On the first panel a representative from the Governor’s Office on Coastal Activities outlined the challenges facing effective clean-up operations. His first concern was that BP was making decisions based on profit.  He said, “BP’s concern with cost clouds their judgment of what should be done or is right.”  Come again.

The last panel was made up of officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton.  Like the Hayward hearing, the questions poised to these officials – around the causes of the explosion that preceded the oil gush and the inadequacy of the response to the disaster – were submitted to them in advance.  One would expect that their take home test would have yielded more thorough answers or that being under oath would elicit a legal obligation to provide more information other than “I don’t recall.”  Not when you live in a corporatocracy.

Corporatocracy –noun, plural –cies

1) …denotes a system of government that serves the interest of, and may de facto be run by, corporations and involves ties between government and business. Where corporations, conglomerates, and/or government entities with private components, control the direction and governance of a country.

2) regulatory agencies responsible for overseeing industry operations take direction and yield to the corporations within said industry;

3) decisions on massive man-made disasters are governed by the bottom line of the corporation responsible for the disaster;

2) a corporation is so removed and powerful that they refer to the countries citizenry as the small people;

3) elected officials publicly apologize to said corporation for being asked to pay for its environmental and economic disaster;

4) and corporate officials stonewall elected officials with impunity in federal and state hearings.

If the only lesson learned from this disaster is that blowout preventer’s should be required to have redundant acoustic actuation features, than we are missing what lies beneath the melting tip of the iceberg.

Journal 6.19.2010: Beauty and the Beast

My first day driving down the bayou to Louisiana’s coast presented a dichotomy of the areas vast beauty and the consequences of the beast that has long dominated the local economy.

My first stop landed me at a BP Claims Center in Chauvin.  Before arriving in Louisiana compensation meant, BP accountability – that those impacted by the disaster would receive a stipend to supplement their lost incomes.  We all want BP to pay for the environmental disaster and economic upheaval it has created. And to some extent the claims process ensures an immediate infusion of cash to those that have bills to pay and mouths to feed now.

The downside is that the monthly payments feel more like welfare checks than retribution for those that want their way of life back. The claims officer I spoke with could not speculate how long the checks would be administered. The claims process was triggered by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was enacted after the Exxon Valdez spill.  The act seeks to address both the resources necessary to respond to spills, and damages compensable to those impacted by a spill. Unfortunately, the act did not anticipate a spill of this magnitude.  Some analysts estimate the total cost of reimbursement at over $40 billion over the next two decades. But how much will be needed for real economic recovery?

Whether BP will be able to shell out the necessary reimbursements over the long haul is unclear, what is evident is the need for economic diversity without which the beautiful wetlands of Louisiana will only be known as the oil and gas fields.  And those that don’t seek employment in those fields could be resigned to depend on long term compensation for a way of life gone with the oil.

The Oil Pollution Act was meant to remedy the clean-up and compensation deficiencies that emerged out of the Exxon Valdez fiasco.  The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster should yield its own set of lessons that warrant new amendments to the act. To that end, funding should be set aside to not only remediate the impacted area, but to invest in new clean energy infrastructure, manufacturing and generation.  Preventing oil spills and setting aside funds to clean them up if they do occur is all well and good, but its time to put real resources into moving away from our oil dependence and more importantly to put real investment into transitioning communities to a new clean energy economy.

Journal 6.20.2010:  Beyond a Price

Local sentiment toward BP in Grand Isle, LA, the large barrier island located on the Gulf of Mexico is understandable harsh, but the sentiment on offshore drilling in general remains intake. While fishing, shrimping, crabbing and oyster harvesting were declared dead by the arrival of oil in the bays and wetlands that surround Grand Isle, offshore drilling remains a large part of the tenuous economy – Louisiana along with other states that line the Gulf, rank among the bottom ten U.S. states in per-capita income – that holds Louisiana afloat.

One needs only to take in the billboards that line the one road that leads to the coast to understand the limited opportunities of those that reside there.  The landscape is dominated by advertisements for offshore oil jobs, interrupted only by the occasional personal injury lawyer services – a suitable companion or harbinger of these high risk jobs. Below the glossy billboards are hand painted signs that read, “live crabs” and “fresh shrimp” but since the waters have closed these signs are less about encouraging passersby to stop for local seafood and more about a stark reminder of an extinct livelihood.

While the rest of the country is measuring the oil crisis in the time since the Deepwater Horizon explosion –Raleigh and Kay Lasseigne are measuring the crisis in the days since they discovered oil in their oyster beds. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries effectively closed waters in the Grand Isle area on May 22. A sign outside of their Grand Isle home counts the days their business got shut down, accompanying the counter is text that reads, “BP….on 5.24.2010 your oil got into our inshore waters…you robbed us of making a living with crabs-oyster-shrimp. How much longer? Months or years?”

Sixty-five year old Raleigh, who has been crabbing and harvesting oysters for 50 years, has no illusions about his livelihood, he told me over lunch that he doesn’t think he’ll ever work the waters again.  The couple has already received their first compensation check for their crabbing business, but the money will never replace the way of life that they have lost.  Raleigh told of loving to wake in the morning to look over the heaven that is Grand Isle, now he feels that BP has brought hell to his community.  These days, Raleigh is unsure how to spend his time.  His health and age preclude him from seeking a job as a contract worker for the clean-up operation. As I prepared to leave their home, I commented on their good nature and smiling faces despite the disaster, Kay replied that I would need to visit them again in the coming months to see if the smiles were still there.

Journal Afterword:  Hands (cuffed) Across the Sands

On June 26, at over 800 locations people joined the nationwide Hands Across the Sand demonstrations to call for shifting Big Oil handouts to clean energy investments that can move us beyond oil.

The nationwide event encouraged citizens to go to their local beaches, form a line in the sand and join hands at noon.  The intent of the image is to send a message to the Administration and elected officials to stop offshore drilling and support clean energy.

In Washington, DC metro area citizens elected to form a symbolic line in the sand in front of the White House to deliver the message directly to the Administration.

But perhaps even more symbolic than the line that spread in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was the beaches that were void of citizens joining hands for clean energy – the beaches where dirty energy is literally washing up on the shores.

Beaches from Louisiana to Florida have been closed to local residents, observers and even media.  In some cases, yellow caution tape warns onlookers to stay back, in Grand Isle, LA; private security guards are posted at beach access points.  Local witnesses report confiscation of research samples, escorted observation and threats of arrest.

The congregation of citizens on beaches across the county and at the White House represents more than the growing frustration with our dependency on fossil fuels and the man-made disaster that has now reached the Florida panhandle.   It reminds us of our right to assemble, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

While BP continues to take liberties with its authority and restricts access to beaches, clean-up workers and the leak site itself, we must keep our eye on the big picture – a shift to clean energy – but at the same time we cannot turn our backs on violations of basic civil liberties and access to information.