WEBEXCLUSIVE

The View from New Orleans

By now, you’ve seen the photos, read the news stories, and heard the measured—and not so measured—opinions of experts focusing on the April 20 BP explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig, where oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet for those of us who live along the Gulf Coast, who inhale the stench given off by the oil most nights when we step out of our front doors, it’s been hard to make those outside the region understand the depth of this catastrophe.

Perhaps now that the oil has hit the current loop and could soon be swirling around the shores of Southern Florida and then along the East Coast—or maybe once seafood prices rise astronomically and Gulf oysters all but disappear and the only shrimp available are frozen and imported from Asia—will Americans finally comprehend the devastation this black gold will bring. Then everyone else will share our fear that our lives are never going back to the way they were.

That fear is inhabited in that smell, a nauseating aroma reminiscent of melting rubber and plastic that seems to hover over New Orleans four or five nights every week. That odor makes it impossible for us to shrug our shoulders and ignore the severity of this situation, to act as if nothing has changed.

The oil is not going to simply wash away within a few months. To even call this an oil spill is to misrepresent the extent of the tragedy. This could mean the death of one of the most fragile, yet integral ecosystems anywhere in the U.S.: the marsh and wetlands that were the best protection for Gulf cities like New Orleans against hurricanes. They, along with the entire Gulf coast, were also the home and breeding grounds for the seafood upon which this region depends both economically and culturally. Food here is more of a communal experience than in any other place I’ve ever lived. As delicious as a crawfish boiled in Cajun seasonings is, a crawfish boil is as much about standing around a table with friends and strangers alike, talking, arguing, and making an absolute mess, as it is about eating. But if the reports about seafood shortages that we have already begun to hear worsen, we may have to learn how to have a crawfish boil without the crawfish.

This is not the Exxon Valdez 2.0. As horrible as that event was, there was a limit to the amount of oil that was released into the environment. The Gulf spill is still ongoing and neither British Petroleum nor the Obama administration have given any indication that they know how to stop the flow before a relief well is completed in August.

Think about that. Oil could continue to surge into the Gulf for another two or three months. Even as BP and the U.S. government continually try to downplay the tragedy by underestimating just how many thousands if not tens of thousands of barrels are escaping into the water each day, as more and more oil washes onto the shores of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida, it’s already clear that the destruction will be long-lasting, that the Gulf may be a dead zone for years to come. Louisiana State University oceanography professor Robert Carney recently told the Times-Picayune “Anything that stays below 1,500 feet can stay in deep circulation in the Gulf for an extended period of time…I would say deep oil might be detectable in that environment for 10 years.” Even if you could care less about the environment or the affected wildlife, the economic impact on the Gulf Coast will be crippling: no one wants to take their kids to swim on a beach covered in oil and tar. Officials in Florida are already worried that the state’s $60 billion tourism industry could be severely threatened—Time recently reported that in some areas along the Florida Gulf coast, hotels are already experiencing 50% cancellations. Restaurants that largely fill their menus will Gulf seafood may soon start to see similar drops in business. 

And yet, despite the culpability of BP, along with Transocean and Halliburton who were both involved with the managing of the oil rig, along with that of the U.S. government and the shockingly lax oversight and regulation enforcement of the Minerals Management Services, we, all of us Americans, bear responsibility for this desolation. BP wasn’t just drilling for fun. Despite apocalyptic warnings about global warming, we seem intent on extracting every last ounce of oil from the earth. We will use it until it’s gone and we will use it because we can’t live without it. Our cars and flat-screens don’t run on air.

Thus, when you see President Obama or Louisiana’s senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter on TV saying how this spill changes nothing, how Louisiana and the U.S. are going to continue offshore oil drilling, temper that righteous indignation you feel welling up in your gut. This is the trade-off. We can’t act now as if we’re surprised oil drilling and manufacturing isn’t always a clean business. Our choices have consequences. This spill is the cost of the way we live. We decided long ago we were willing to pay.

—May 23, 2010  

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