Governor Bobby Jindal and other Louisiana politicians belatedly are scurrying to protect the state’s barrier islands and coastal marshes from the BP oil spill and the contamination and accelerated erosion it would bring.
Where were these leaders and their predecessors during the last five decades when the oil industry’s commercial activity was decimating huge chunks of the Louisiana wetlands? The answer is easy. Politicians of both parties and at all levels were looking the other way, presumably because of the industry’s multi billion dollar economic impact on the state and partially because of the oil companies’ handsome campaign contributions.
Thus, the oil industry was given virtually carte blanche to dig channels, dredge canals, and drain portions of the wetlands to facilitate transportation and production of its products. Scientists estimate that approximately 50 percent of the 30 or so square miles of Louisiana wetlands lost annually has been due to salt water intrusion and other destructive impacts resulting from industrial activity. At the current rate of depletion, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey predict that the Louisiana wetlands, which constitute 40 percent of all wetlands in the continental United States, will be gone in 200 years.
Louisiana made a pact with an industry that produces a vital but environmentally toxic product. One cannot blame the people of Louisiana for yielding to the daily pressures of earning a living, yet they engaged in a Faustian bargain in which they were bound to end up as victims as well as beneficiaries. Indeed, Louisianians were paying a steep price for the oil industry’s presence right from the get-go. It’s just that the wetland loss occurred in gradual increments, making it easy for people to largely ignore the degradation in the midst of big oil’s seductive boost to the local economy. Only when the BP spill accelerated the industry’s adverse environmental impacts on the region in a dramatic concentrated fashion were Gulf coast residents jolted into a reality they could not disregard. The tragedy is that the price (in wetland loss with accompanying reduction in fisheries, flood control and hurricane mitigation) that ordinary citizens will have to pay did not have to be as heavy if government had imposed tighter controls on industrial activity.
Meanwhile, nary a peep has been heard from the state’s congressional delegation promoting a crash program to develop solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy in Louisiana. Where are the requests to obtain federal funding to finance startups of solar panel factories and windmill construction in the state? Politicians should be doing this not just to provide alternatives to oil drilling but to assure jobs for their constituents when the oil runs out–and they should have been doing this all along.
Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, due for release at the end of the summer.