The Gulf oil gusher is a combined petrochemical hurricane and levee break in slow motion. The wave-crumpled containment booms washing ashore as the oil slick spreads across the Gulf matches the picture of futility of helicopters dropping sandbags into the 17th Street Canal’s breach as the city flooded after Katrina.
Along with the urgency of stopping the flow is felt the agony of the coastal vigil, of not knowing how much of the oily mass will come ashore when and where, how long it will stick around or how lasting the damage will be.
If there is some solace in comparing disasters, it’s that British Petroleum can be more readily held accountable than were Mother Nature and the Corps of Engineers in 2005.
BP, which advertises itself as the greenest of oil giants, will be spreading another kind of green around the Gulf Coast long after its oil sheen is gone, in wages to clean-up crews and to settle a long line of claims from fishers, shrimpers, oystermen, charter boat captains, bait shop owners and anyone else who can document a loss. And, of course, the legion of lawyers, and not just those pursuing private actions. Along with three cabinet secretaries who arrived Friday came a Justice Department team to lay the groundwork for the people’s case.
If Louisiana continues to avoid the worst case, the mass of oil will stay east of the Mississippi River, where only a fourth of the coastal marsh lay vulnerable, but so do the estuaries and beaches of our neighbors. Yet, unsightly as is black oil on white sand, it is more readily cleaned there than in the marsh, where it kills the grass and wildlife.
Fish can avoid the area, but oystermen and shrimpers stand to lose a year’s reproductive cycle, this after the industry has been hit hard by four storms in five years. Beyond that, leading oysterman Mike Voisin fears “the tainting of our brand.” Taste is so prone to suggestion, especially involving bivalves, he says, “that people could taste oil that is not there.” How do you file a claim for that?
British Petroleum shoulders all the blame and will pay the bill, but critics of the industry hope the pain is shared. The Gulf already is said to be the most expensive place in the world to explore for oil and gas, and it is about to become more so. The mandate for additional security technology is bound to follow a review of drilling practices by the Interior Department.
Opponents of expanded drilling hope the White House retrenches from its recently announced five-year plan to open more tracts in the eastern Gulf and off Virginia for exploration. Drilling advocates in government and industry are cautiously confident the president won’t pull back permanently, as most Gulf Coast congressmen continue to back increased exploration. But if the flow cannot be stopped soon and if the Gulf cannot contain it, that regional support will count for far less.
Also, the growing surface sheen could prove to be a useful backdrop for the coming environmental bill still to be filed in the Senate. Though the much maligned cap-and-trade method of containing carbons has been sidetracked, the approach has shifted to something called a carbon linkage fee, which amounts to a new federal tax on greenhouse gases.
Not only federal taxes are up for discussion. Even before the BP blowout, Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia, revived an old debate by filing a bill in this legislative session to tax offshore oil and gas. A 3% tax on crude from offshore wells and foreign lands would net $1.5 billion per year, he said, a third of which would go to coastal restoration under his bill.
The author blames 30% of coastal erosion on oilfield production, mainly canals dug in the marshes. While not directly linking the massive spill to his legislative effort, it does “add credence” to his argument, said the senator in his timely appearance before the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday.
The odds are stacked heavily against the proposed constitutional amendment this year, but the measure could clear the Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee, since Marionneaux chairs it. After that, who knows where the idea will stop, especially so long as the Gulf gusher doesn’t.