HOUMA, La.—People here are still haunted by the oil crisis that crushed the local economy, closed down dozens of businesses, wiped out 24 percent of the region’s jobs, and triggered painful soul-searching about the Gulf Coast’s entrenched dependence on the offshore drilling industry.
The disaster that caused such devastation? Not the BP oil spill a year ago. Certainly, everyone here acknowledges that the deadly April 20, 2010, explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig—which killed 11 men and sent more than 200 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, coating beaches and birds with crude—was a calamity. But the economic impact on southern Louisiana didn’t come close to the one precipitated by the oil-price collapse of the 1980s, when crude plunged from $40 a barrel in 1980 to less than $12 in 1986. In the rest of the country, the falloff helped fuel an economic boom. In southern Louisiana, it triggered a free-fall.
“It was devastating,” recalls Charlotte Randolph, president of LaFourche Parish, which runs along the bayou from the oil shipyard town of Houma to Port Fourchon, the nation’s largest port devoted to servicing the offshore drilling industry. The parish’s motto is “feeding and fueling America.” “It was an abandonment of the area. There was no work. All the ancillary industries, the service industries, were affected. There wasn’t a need for a welder or a cook. The bumper sticker was, ‘Last one out of Houma, turn out the lights.’ ”
The economic impact of the Gulf spill by comparison? “Not even close,” Randolph says.
And the environmental impact of what has been called the nation’s greatest ecological disaster? “It was not considerable—to this point,” she says. “We don’t know the long-reaching effects. [But the oil] may have all dissolved.… As far as the marsh and wetlands, it didn’t get into a whole lot of the spawning areas. And it was removable. The ideal place for it to come onshore was the beach. You can sift oil out of the sand and remove it.”
What has hurt them worst in Houma—say Randolph and dozens of south Louisiana business owners, officials, shipyard and construction workers, fishermen, charter-boat operators, and restaurant owners—was the six-month moratorium that President Obama imposed on new offshore drilling and the five subsequent months it took the Interior Department to issue new permits. Environmental-policy experts say that the “permitorium” was both essential and justified; Interior waited for the bipartisan White House oil-spill commission to complete its investigation of the disaster and then wrote new safety and environmental rules based on the panel’s recommendations before it began issuing permits in February.
But even after the spill, people living on the Gulf Coast want more, not less, from the oil industry. The livelihoods of Randolph and others are bound to offshore drilling, and they say that the permitorium slowdown—and the prospect of potentially time-consuming and pricey new safety and environmental rules—raise the specter of those dark economic times in the ’80s.
Louisiana’s fundamental dependence on the offshore oil industry is a microcosm of America’s dependence on oil. Louisiana, Alaska, and other states that count on petroleum jobs and the tax revenue that drilling generates are vulnerable not only to the ravages of climate change (from melting permafrost to rising sea levels) but also to the environmental and economic devastation of offshore oil disasters. Yet oil locks them in an embrace they cannot escape, because the local politicians are loyal to the local benefactors, protecting the industry’s needs rather than pushing for transformational energy policies that might steer the nation away from oil.
Throughout southern Louisiana, where every aspect of the economy, government, and civil society is tied to the oil industry, people say that what will help them recover from the spill is new drilling—now. So, those reports that BP is in talks with the Interior Department to begin drilling more deepwater wells in the Gulf this summer?
“I’m OK with it.”
Louisiana is a classic energy state—broadly defined by economists as a state or nation so tied to oil, gas, coal, and other extractive natural resources that its entire economy rises and falls on the fortunes of those industries. The year following the BP spill has laid bare how badly Louisiana relies on energy, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs ranging from rig workers to shipbuilders to line cooks, and supplies a tax base that pays for everything from schoolteachers’ salaries to the upkeep of levees that protect southern Louisiana from the next big hurricane.
It has also revealed that, for many on the Gulf Coast, protecting the oil industry and the jobs it provides is far more important than tightening safety and environmental rules for drillers. At the same time, it has revived a decades-long effort to lessen Louisiana’s dependence on oil by diversifying the state’s economy beyond energy extraction—and has shown just how difficult it will be to do that.