This article is part of a special issue of The Nation magazine about green energy, “Freedom From Oil.”
PORT SULPHUR, La. — Captain Pete, as everyone in town calls him, has been an oysterman nearly his entire life. He started as a boy, learning the trade from his father, who had learned it from his father. Working fourteen-hour days from leased oyster beds in Barataria Bay, 40 miles south of New Orleans, Captain Pete’s family supplied the city’s premier vendor, P&J Oyster Company. When P&J closed its doors on June 10, it was front-page news in New Orleans — one more in a string of casualties of BP’s deep-sea oil catastrophe.
“It took 50 days for BP’s oil to reach our beds,” Captain Pete tells me as he steers a flatboat out to survey the damage one steamy afternoon. Video he shot a few days before showed streaks of oil the texture of jello staining the marsh grasses that shelter his oyster beds. “Those grasses will shrivel and die,” he says in an accent so thick I struggle to comprehend him. With time, and a respite from additional oil, the grasses could grow back and oyster harvesting resume, he adds. But this year’s harvest is a total loss, and since BP’s gusher clearly isn’t going to be plugged anytime soon, much more oil is certain to slather those grasses.
So it makes sense that Captain Pete would welcome President Obama’s moratorium on deep-sea drilling. Except he doesn’t. The captain lost his house in Hurricane Katrina five years ago, and now the BP disaster may bankrupt the family business, which was helping to put his son through college. But the moratorium? To Captain Pete, it’s one more lunacy imposed on coastal Louisiana by outside “experts,” a group he neither trusts nor respects. Invoking an analogy I heard countless times during a week of reporting there, he asks, “When a airplane crashes, do you ground every plane in the country? No. You find out what caused the problem and fix it. You don’t punish the entire industry.” He points a well-muscled arm toward the dozens of other shrimp and fishing boats docked nearby. “Sixty percent of these guys work on oil rigs, or they service rigs, during the [seafood] off-season,” he explains. “The economy here was just getting back on its feet after Katrina. This moratorium will kill us.”
Anyone who is serious about the United States kicking its oil habit in the wake of the BP disaster must confront the realities of Louisiana, a state whose economy, politics, and self-image have been saturated in oil for more than a century. They must have an answer for Captain Pete and other locals who are cursing BP even as they wonder how they will support their families if the oil and gas industry—widely regarded as the source of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in Louisiana—goes under. “We see the same reaction from people in the coal country of Appalachia and the timber lands of the Pacific Northwest,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “They may criticize the corporations doing the resource extraction, but they still want the extraction to continue because it’s the only jobs they know. The only way to approach these folks with integrity is to offer them a prosperous alternative. If you support a drilling moratorium, which the Sierra Club does, you also have to support a massive shift toward green jobs.”
Plotting a green energy future for Louisiana, however, has been too daunting a task for most environmental groups. “Our side hasn’t made a blueprint for Louisiana because this state is seen as so pro–oil and gas,” observes Jerome Ringo, a former Louisiana oil worker who has been chair of the National Wildlife Federation and president of the Apollo Alliance. “To be honest, I doubt Louisiana will ever get off oil completely. But we do need to diversify our energy mix. We need to think about where our state goes 10 years from now and invest in the green jobs of the future.”
But Louisiana can surprise you. Who knew that this petrostate boasts by far the strongest solar tax credit in the country? Passed in 2007, the 50 percent credit cuts the cost of installing a solar system in half. Combine that with Obama’s 30 percent federal tax credit and a Louisiana homeowner gets an 80 percent discount to go solar and live off the grid—not a bad choice in a region where storms regularly knock out the conventional power supply.
Even parts of the Louisiana business community—long a bastion of the oil and gas industry—may be seeing the light. With great fanfare, Greater New Orleans, Inc. in May launched its Green N.O. coalition, which recognizes “the double bottom line of diversifying the economy while sustaining the environment.” A study by the global consulting firm McKinsey estimates that pursuing sustainable business opportunities could create 90,000 jobs in Louisiana. Beth Galante, executive director of the New Orleans office of the nonprofit Global Green USA, sees this shift within the business community as “winning a major battle in the war” to sway local public opinion. “To get a chamber of commerce that is dominated by one of the most conservative oil and gas industries in the country to invest time and money in green energy is huge,” she argues. “The political philosophy of many Americans, especially in the South, is that whatever makes money is good. This will help people realize there are great opportunities in green energy.”
Great opportunities but also great challenges. It’s not only apoliticals like Captain Pete who oppose Obama’s moratorium. The legislator who sponsored the solar tax credit (and numerous other green energy measures), State Sen. Nick Gautreaux (D), condemns the ban. So does Rep. Charlie Melancon, the Democrat hoping to oust Republican David Vitter from his Senate seat in November. Melancon’s district is ground zero for the BP disaster—he broke down weeping during a Congressional hearing while describing the devastation of its ecosystems, jobs and way of life—but a great many jobs in his district derive from the oil and gas industry.
It may be shocking to read in The Nation, but a blanket moratorium on new deepwater drilling may not be the best policy to pursue in the wake of the BP disaster. No state in the union is more addicted to oil than Louisiana; the oil and gas industry is responsible for roughly 25 percent of the state’s economic activity. If you abruptly cut off a hardened heroin addict, you can kill him; there is a reason physicians prescribe methadone rather than cold turkey. Louisiana absolutely needs to kick its oil habit; but it must do so through a planned, orderly transition or it will not work.