In some parts of the country, the sight of oil drifting toward the Louisiana coast, oozing into the fragile marshlands and ...
MORGAN CITY, La. — In some parts of the country, the sight of oil drifting toward the Louisiana coast, oozing into the fragile marshlands and bringing large parts of the state’s economy to a halt, has prompted calls to stop offshore drilling indefinitely, if not altogether.
Here, in the middle of things, those calls are few. Here, in fact, the unfolding disaster is not even prompting a reconsideration of the 75th annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.
“All systems are go,” said Lee Delaune, the festival’s director, sitting in his cluttered office in a historic house known as Cypress Manor. “We will honor the two industries as we always do,” Delaune said. “More so probably in grand style because it’s our diamond jubilee.”
Louisiana is an oil state, through and through. A gushing leak off its coast has not, apparently, changed that.
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Though local and state politicians are railing against BP and what they consider lax industry regulation and enforcement, it is nearly impossible to find any of them calling for offshore drilling to cease, or even slow down. Louisiana’s senators — Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican — have both scrambled to be the most prominent voice to argue the country should not retreat from offshore drilling just because of the spill. Many of their constituents seem to agree.
“They’re angry, they’re frustrated, they’re feeling helpless, but they still understand that it is part of the culture and the fabric of the economy,” said Rep. Charlie Melancon, whose district encompasses all of the areas where oil has come ashore. “It is what it is.”
In a state that is particularly sensitive to the health of its coastal wetlands, which serve as a barrier against hurricanes, such an attitude might seem odd — even self-defeating. But as the legendary Gov. Huey Long believed with great conviction, a state willing to let others exploit its resources is also a state with considerable leverage.
But while Long’s taxes on oil paid for schoolbooks, the terms of the trade-off in the coming years may become more directly equivalent: the costly restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which for decades have been slashed by oil pipelines and canals and are now threatened by crude itself, may be financed in large part by offshore drilling.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina, Landrieu helped push through a federal bill that allowed for greatly expanded deepwater drilling in the gulf but required that 37.5 percent of federal revenues generated be divided among the coastal states.
According to a formula based on factors including proximity to wells and miles of coastline, Louisiana is the biggest beneficiary of that revenue. And under a state constitutional amendment, it is required to spend the money exclusively on hurricane-protection measures and coastal restoration.
Until 2017, the revenue sharing applies only to new wells, so for now Louisiana is drawing only a small fraction of the royalties it eventually will. (Landrieu has said she wants it to apply immediately to existing wells.)
But Garret Graves, the chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said these potential royalties were not a factor in the state’s approach to its natural resources. While officials have pushed for revenue sharing, he said, the oil industry will continue to play a big role here with or without such payments. “Our state has carried the torch for the country in terms of the oil and gas for years,” Graves said. “It’s part of the culture.”
In this he echoed a common refrain: As long as the country maintains its insatiable appetite for oil, Louisiana will be willing to bear many of the risks. The awareness of those risks does not seem to change the state’s vigorously pro-industry outlook, though it does reinforce a belief Louisianans should be compensated for the downsides.
Cathy Norman, manager of the roughly 40,000 acres of coastal wetlands in the Edward Wisner Donation land trust, knows the risks well.
The land trust she manages includes much of Port Fourchon, the largest onshore support harbor for the deepwater industry in the gulf, but also pristine beaches and mangrove marshlands where, to her horror, she has seen tar balls, sheen and even emulsified crude. Norman’s late husband, Shea Penland, a geologist who died in 2008, was a forceful advocate for preservation of the Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.
“We are a working coastline,” Norman said. “Part of the reason that we are so prolific is because of the delta and because of the geology and geography of the area. It all fits in. It is what we are.”