Wednesday, June 4, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Louisiana got BP’d by oil. Can the relationship withstand the stress?


This is far from over — economically, environmentally and culturally.
There are no raggedy refugees or sunken cities. No looting or roaming vigilantes. No apocalyptic mayhem for the hovering television camera. Just the tide, rising and falling in the marsh and lapping at the beach. And tens of millions of gallons of crude oil still out there.

Now it’s hurricane season, which may not be a bad thing.

Time will tell whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster ascends to the very high bar set by the 2005 assault from the tropics. But it is a terror nonetheless.

Two thousand five was a calamity, but it was a wrenching, cacophonous wreck of howling wind and bleating babies. A made-for-television tragedy. This oil spill is a cancer — slow, silent, creeping, black death. It lurked off the coast for a month before coming ashore, like an axis army massing on the border. It is anthropomorphic now, a shape-shifting entity with a dark heart releasing its toxins in metered torture.

Astonishingly, it took a month before BP transmogrified into a verb, as in, “You really BP’d that up!” And it deserves to get traction in its new grammatical life. Most indications are that BP threw precaution to the wind, underplayed the magnitude of the crisis and has been left-footed in its reaction, calculating liability every slippery step of the way.

Our oyster beds will continue to get poisoned, the marshes where shrimp spawn polluted. Fleets remain idle at the dock. It isn’t Chicken Little hyperbole to anticipate Louisiana’s seafood industry hobbled for the next two to five years, or to wonder how the thousands of people who earn their living in it and from it will ride it out.

It’s not just the people who fish, many of them southeast Asians who traded the upheaval of war 35 years ago for an eternity of tropical and industrial threats. It’s the suppliers, the truckers, the warehouse workers, the net makers and net menders, the dishwashers and waitresses, the charter operators, the shuckers and boat mechanics, the mom and pop businesses that sink or swim with the coastal economy. Will BP’s liability extend to them, and to what extent?

It’s the oystermen in this week’s cover story, the Collins family; stewards of Caminada Bay, a chief source for Acadiana’s restaurants. For them, a two- or three-year hiatus from harvesting could be enough to break a chain five generations long. Five generations, choked by the very thing that has been the wellspring of Louisiana’s tenuous prosperity.

And we run the risk of conflating deepwater drilling with drilling period, and that could have an even more profound effect on South Louisiana. Within days of the explosion, share prices fell as investors backed away from the independent operators, the smaller companies that explore, drill and extract oil and gas in shallow waters. The companies that are a crucial strand in the web of explorers, drillers and suppliers employing so many of us here in Acadiana. The companies that are not BP or ExxonMobil.

If the liability becomes too great, the insurance costs too high, many of the independents could be driven out of business. BP will not be liable for that catastrophe.

The complex relationship between our state and the oil industry is being put to a stress test. Oil has padded our pockets, endowed our universities and patronized our arts. And it has sliced our coastline to ribbons and blackened our beaches and marshes.

So we ask ourselves: Is getting BP’d acceptable every 20 years? Every 50? Or is it simply unacceptable?

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