NEW ORLEANS -- Page One of the June 11 Times-Picayune on the BP disaster carried the headline "Spill Could be Double the Size"
with the subhead, "
40,000 barrels may be flowing daily."
The wide photograph beneath the banner showed four women wearing thick rubber gloves, their hair wrapped over industrial-sized tubs, on the last day of oyster-shucking for the 134-year-old P&J Oyster Co.
If this surreal horror story has taught us one thing it is that we need real sources to explain how human error could wreck a regional economy, poison a coastal marsh, endanger vast fishing areas, and up the ante for greater hazards if a severe hurricane hits in the next few years. A long-dormant story is surfacing: how officials in Washington and Baton Rouge gutted regulation of energy production, and in so doing helped produce the crisis at hand.
This is the theme that Oliver Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University, has been stressing for nearly three decades. As a scholar he has chronicled the case law while training a sharp lens on how Louisiana public officials put the interests of their state and its people behind those of the petro-chemical industry. Professor Houck has also been a strategic force behind litigation that has succeeded in preserving vast areas of semi-tropical wilderness by sparing it from industrial or mass residential develo
"The scary part is how little we know now and how little we are likely to ever know, given the nature of the oil spread," Houck reflected. "There is no baseline, little hard research [on environmental impact.] How that will all play out in civil damage actions seeking compensation for natural resource losses is anyone's guess. And -- guess what -- it'll probably come down in the end to no more than that, a guess. Trying to put a price tag on a dead pelican is worse than useless, it is a sacrilege."
Oliver Houck grew up on Cape Cod, graduated from Harvard in 1960, and after several years in the military earned his law degree at Georgetown in 1971. He went to work for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C., prosecuting polluters of the Potomac River, then spent 10 years with the National Wildlife Federation, overseeing litigation and legislation. Drawn to Louisiana for a case, he took a job on the Tulane law faculty, where he pioneered the teaching of environmental law, while generating a stream of articles in the mainstream press. In 1983 he won the New Orleans Press Club's top prize for a series on the Mississippi River and the wetlands in Gambit Weekly.
If the BP spill confirmed Houck's long-running argument about government failure in oil-and-gas oversight, it could not have come at a crueler moment personally. "Down on the Batture,"
Houck's memoir of walks along the area between the levee and the Mississippi near New Orleans, just published by University Press of Mississippi, is a tone poem to his adopted town.
"Every summer night this city of the pink skies goes to bed by the river in a cacophony of laughing gulls, up high and wheeling towards the lake," Houck writes. "Flights of egret and ibis make their way silently below them, downstream towards Audubon Park. Upstream, croaking and squawking, come the night heron to take up their posts like the changing of the guard. It is the best aerial show in town."
In another season, Houck's poetic sensibility as a naturalist, interlaced with the book's wry comments on Louisiana past times like gambling before it was legal, might be taken as a coda to Hurricane Katrina. As the fifth-year anniversary of the epic flood approaches, Houck's book provides a refreshing reminder that at some point, the world resumes some normalcy, the center starts to hold.
But the book was done and nearly published before the BP rig exploded, and as the oil spill pushes past 50 days, with no foreseeable end to the dark plumes and dead turtles and pelicans, an interview with Houck turns quickly from reflections on the memoirist's craft to the legacy of the petro-chemical industry in Louisiana and government failures embedded in the past No one, arguably, knows this terrain as well as Ollie Houck.
"As bad as the BP spill is, it's nothing compared to what oil and gas has done to this state in the last hundred years: they've ripped it to shreds. That's the bill all of them will walk away without paying." He was just getting started.
Houck launched into a recitation of data, beginning with 20,000 oil waste pits littered across the Cajun heartland, many of them abandoned sites leaching toxic chemicals.
"The trade-off for years was the tax revenues and mineral royalties on state own landed," Houck said, "and as long as that was coming in, it was quite explicit that no state regulator would touch their drilling wastes or processed waters. They went off Scot free. A lot of the waste sites were simply returned to the soil, through a rotating disc in a process called land-farming. It was more like out of sight and mind."
Warming to his topic, Houck continued: "The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet built in the 1960s killed 39,000 acres of cypress wetlands between New Orleans and the sea. MR-GO's cleared area was the exact track of Katrina's storm surge waves and certainly would have knocked down the momentum had it never been built."
After Hurricane Katrina, even Sen. David Vitter, a Republican with a history of opposition to environmental legislation, called for the closure of the outlet. The canal has been filled; the old protective wetlands are bare. MR-GO -- the outlet -- cut through the two southern parishes that lead to the gulf: St. Bernard and the lower-lying Plaquemines. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, big and beefy with a thick voice, was named ABC News's Person of the Week for his impassioned cry for federal help.
Houck said: "I'm all for Billy Nungesser's defense of Placquemines Parish and I join his condemnation of BP wholeheartedly. But 50 percent of Billy's parish has disappeared in the last 50 years not to oil spills but to oil and gas pipelines and access canals."
He is referring to some 10,000 miles of finger canals cut through the coastal marshes to service off-shore drilling sites. The loss has reached a state of drowning: every 30 minutes a tract of marsh the size of a football field is swallowed by encroaching gulf waters. Much of Nungesser's political real estate went down when Billy was a boy and his daddy Billy Senior was chairman of the Republican Party. Back then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Democrats held the cards. Party power has shifted to the GOP (Gov. Bobby Jindal and all but one of the state's U.S. House members are Republicans) but one factor has remained constant: the state Legislature's deference to the oil and gas industry.
Historically, the lost wetlands was a strategic buffer to hurricane winds that drove water sheets toward the city. The ecological system was among the richest in the hemisphere. "It is just cut to shreds," said Houck, the fire hitting his voice. "If you fly over and peer down it looks like a massacre. But when you drive out to the end and look out, it's like a field of green. ... And then you overlay on the Army Corps of Engineers' work on MR-GO, the Houma Navigation Canal, the Barataria Waterway, the Lower Atchafalaya Canal -- these are monsters. They not only cut up the marsh but bring enormous quantities of salt water into the marsh on every strong south wind. The salt kills the roots and the marsh falls apart like wet cardboard."
Repairing the coastal marshes is the most reliable way to defend southern Louisiana from the titanic losses of hurricanes and replenish the fragile ecology. That was already going to be expensive -- a difficult scientific feat to pull off -- and now BP has added the element of toxic poisons, for which, as Houck says, there is no baseline of research.
"Just a few years ago we were looking at a cost in the neighborhood of $20 billion to repair the coast," he said. "Since Katrina, and the financial crisis, the cost has risen to $100 billion." Where does money like that come from?
"The most important thing is a funding source," answered Houck, "a dedicated trust fund beyond the appropriation process of federal and state governments. You have three guilty actors here, over their eyeballs in the destruction of south Louisiana. First is industry. Then you've got the state, which permitted the drilling, took money in taxes and public-lease revenues, suppressed all critics, even fired some who published or spoke otherwise. And then you have the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency, which was handmaiden to it all and dug the larger canals at behest of oil and gas.
"This is the big debt no one talks about paying," Houck added. "The position of our congressional delegation is that we ask the people of America to pay. My position -- and it's quixotic -- is that you get oil and gas companies to pay just like they pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites and abandoned coal mines. They have stripped mined the coast, so why don't they pay for fixing it? I don't understand that. I understand the politics -- but not the sense of it. This is a much bigger bill than BP might pay for $5 billion to $10 billion in total remedial costs. Cost of restoring the coastal zone is a debt that has never been addressed by state or industry."
In one of the more acerbic passages of "Down on the Batture," Houck extends his argument:
The state's coastal wetlands campaign, whose signature photo is an egret perched on a petroleum platform, is funded by Shell Oil and makes no mention of oil and gas harm to the zone. Nor does the Shell exhibit at the aquarium downtown, which features fish around an oil rig. The state and the oil and gas industry have joined forces to persuade Congress that the American taxpayer should pay to put our Humpty Dumpty back together again. No suggestion is made of a contribution from the industry, the largest member of which cleared thirty-six billion dollars in profits last year, with four others close behind. And whose major damage, by this late date, is uncontestable. Instead, Shell sponsors Jazz Fest.