Can't live with oil, can't live without it

by Rich Heffern

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I’ve been in the Cajun area of southwestern Louisiana all week covering the Deepwater Horizon spill and its impact on humans and on the unique bioregion of the bayou country and the coast. In both the Lafayette and New Iberia areas where I’ve been staying, evidence of the oil and gas industry is everywhere.

A good part of the Lafayette airport is taken up by big yellow helicopters. It’s the main departure point for the crews that work on the distant offshore oil platforms. Along main highways are supply warehouses for drilling equipment, repair shops, the offices and kitchens of the catering companies that feed and water workers hundreds of miles offshore, and all manner of other support facilities.

As I munched on a shrimp po-boy sandwich in a New Iberia cafe, a crew wearing red Halliburton shirts sat across the aisle flirting with and making the young waitress laugh. Streets in Lafayette have French names in honor of the proud Acadian heritage. Two blocks from where my wife and I stayed was Petroleum Rd. and downtown there’s a large Oil Center.

Oil is as much a part of south Louisiana as gumbo. Most histories of Louisiana oil begin in 1901 in Jennings, where the state’s first well began production in the middle of a rice field.

As I talk with people whose livelihoods may have gone permanently south and others who deeply grieve for the imminent destruction of the beautiful wetlands and the animal life there, and at the same time see so much proof that the oil and gas industry is the mainstay of the Gulf coast economy, it stands out starkly for me that this part of the country now can’t live with the oil but also can’t live without it.

It’s necessary to keep this in mind, I think, as we follow developments in the area and try to get our minds around the biggest environmental calamity in our history.

A Gallup poll last week found that, since the Gulf spill, Americans' preferences for prioritizing between environmental protection and energy production have shifted from a somewhat pro-energy stance to an even stronger pro-environment stance. That’s good news.

But as we grieve along with Gulf coasters and say Ich Bin Ein Louisianer, we need to remember how tightly woven the area’s economy is with the oil and gas we all consume profligately. Shutting down more offshore drilling will in its own right be a huge economic disaster for the Gulf coast region as the drilling goes off to the coasts of Brazil or Africa.

We need to proceed wisely and somehow search out the middle way that will both restore the stricken wetlands and fisheries, while carefully nudging the area’s bear-hug dependency on oil and gas production toward an equal commitment to more sustainable and renewable energy sources.

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