By Anne Rolfes, founding director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
In June of 2010, as BP’s oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, I was invited to testify before what seemed to me an obscure congressional committee, the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife. I accepted the invitation with the philosophy that you should do such things when asked, even if you suspect your words will end up in a bureaucratic black hole of do-nothingness. On the day of my testimony, I addressed two congresspeople and 19 empty seats.
Of the 21 committee members, only Baton Rouge Rep. Bill Cassidy and the committee chair were present. Rep. Charles Boustany, the representative from Louisiana’s 7th district (including Lafayette, my hometown), was not on the committee but did make a guest appearance. He did not listen but instead made a statement that went something like this: The oil industry and the seafood industry/environment have coexisted peacefully for 50 years. His message was clear: the BP Oil Spill was an anomaly.
The funny thing about Boustany’s statement is that it was almost exactly like Cassidy’s statement. They read what seemed to be a script. It’s as if someone were writing their lines. And guess what – someone probably was. In this case the someone is a trade group that lobbies on behalf of the oil industry: the American Petroleum Institute, the Mid Continental Oil and Gas Association and similar organizations. When the oil industry needs defending, they don’t need to speak. Just write lines and hand it to a congressperson. Or even a senator.
What else can explain the coincidence of numbers that Sen. Mary Landrieu used in defending the oil industry? My colleague Benjamin Leger investigated the suspiciously low numbers she used to refer to accidents in the Gulf of Mexico over the last 60 years. The number she has provided repeatedly in public statements is just 175,813 barrels, just one barrel off the number on an American Petroleum Institute’s report on oil spills in the Gulf. The number seemed suspiciously low to us since federal figures show a different picture, to the tune of 471,721 barrels of oil spilled in the Gulf since the 1950s. Add to this the quantity of accidents in the Gulf of Mexico reported to the National Response Center – in 2009 alone there were more than 3,600 accidents.
Sen. Landrieu is not just spewing the oil industry’s rhetoric; she is actively defending the industry, just as Cassidy and Boustany read from a script to defend big oil.
This script about the safety of the industry is fiction. Those of us who live here pay the price of industry operations in the form of illnesses from pollution and destroyed homes and livelihoods (just ask fishermen impacted by the BP Oil Spill). Yes, the industry provides jobs, but this does not mean that we should ignore the problems that they also provide.
Pollution destroys property value. So do the floodwaters that now reach our homes thanks to the oil industry’s carving up of the wetlands (see an NPR story on that issue here). There is no better example of these externalized costs than refinery accidents. Refineries’ own reports show that, since 2005, Louisiana’s 17 refineries have averaged 10 accidents a week. Poor maintenance and equipment failure is a cause of 25% of these accidents.
Refineries are simply not investing in employees and equipment. Instead they pocket profits while we pay the price. Drive by ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining and see for yourself. Rust abounds on this refinery whose parent company made more than $30 billion dollars in 2010 (yet dodged taxes).
These billions of dollars in profit are influential, and keep our congresspeople and senators singing the oil company’s tune. How long are we going to stand for this?