The Good and the Bad of the Gulf Coast's Oil Industry

Conflicted! That’s exactly how I feel, and it’s because of each side of the same coin.


In reality, it’s about the same industry and the same catastrophic event, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (more commonly known as the BP oil spill); both have me hopping mad and somewhat grateful. That broad range of emotions should not come into play on one topic. But they do, and at every turn, with every reasonable consideration, two diverse emotions and multiple lines of thought come to the fore.


The oil and gas industry has been very, very good to the Gulf Coast. It has been the source of incredible investments in plants, employment in every geographic sector with excellent paying jobs, payments of state taxes on the higher end of the scale, charitable organization support, community involvement and, in general, bringing to our region a better quality of life than if these industries, and their allied support industries, were not here.


But we have paid a dear price environmentally. Canals created in criss-cross patterns, used for both exploration and well service, have likely hastened the erosion of our fragile coastlines, and abandoned wellheads in Gulf waters have caused many a recreational boat to sustain hull and engine damage, sometimes resulting in total loss of the craft.


Still many of our children have benefited with higher education thanks to scholarships and grant programs from the oil and gas industries.


But we breathe air that is likely polluted by processes to convert what we bring out of the earth into something we can use to power America’s economic engine.


Still these industries have developed research to make energy usage more efficient.


But there has been a real cost in the pollution of ground water and likely well water throughout our region.


And it goes on and on.


Still the significant event of the oil spill on April 20, 2010, is still producing almost impossible situations that defy easy solutions.


On that date, more than three years ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform structure, operating in the Macondo Prospect area of the Mississippi Canyon, about 40 miles offshore and 130 miles south of New Orleans, endured a catastrophic explosion, in which 11 workers were killed, likely instantly, and so began a flow of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico that would not be stopped until more than 100 days later.  


Even today, no one knows exactly how much crude flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, entering, maybe forever, into the ecosystem of this most important body of water. The oil was soon followed by an industrial desiccant, the purpose of which was to break up the massive slicks of oil, and hastening, it was thought, the deterioration of the rivers of oil flowing with the tides and the currents.


Never before has that much man-made chemical product been used for this purpose. And again, even today no one knows the long-term effects of its presence.


What we do know, with unerring certainty, is that seafood production in every area of the Gulf, as well as in the wetlands and the lakes and rivers in the region, is down dramatically. The oil, to the best of our knowledge and visual experience, is very much still with us. So are the remnants of the desiccant. Much has sunk to the bottom, interrupting the food chain and impacting shrimp and oyster fishermen’s livelihood.


Some, and again no one knows how much, of the two materials are still in the Gulf’s currents, being carried along at various depths below the surface of the water, inhibiting the penetration of light into the Gulf and the waterways that flow into it as well as the wetlands, coating the species that live in the area, and destroying the life cycles of countless numbers and generations of fish. In the wetlands, the bottoms of the land, under the shallow waters, are thick with crude petroleum.


Fishermen and their families are literally starving for work. They are ready for the next trip out, for the next sizeable catch. In many cases, heading out to fish is a waste of time and boat fuel. 


Still the benefits most of us derive from this industry, from gainful employment to lower cost of fuel than many of our neighbors, continue on.


This sort of thing drives you crazy, when your very good friend, you learn, is also one of your terrible enemies.


Some among us are of the “accidents will happen” school. That’s a reasonable outlook in most situations. We are human, after all. But such a big accident, and an event that is still ongoing to a very large extent three years later, just cannot be tolerated. Our neighbors, long-term fishermen and the latest in a long line of generations of Louisianians, Mississippians and Alabamians are suffering. Our seafood is not as plentiful. Our environment is scarred. And our recreational opportunities have been limited.


We and our governments have taken steps to minimize the effects. Every link in the chain of our seafood industry has been analyzed, tested and retrofitted. No food in the world is reviewed as much as the seafood from Louisiana before it goes to market. That kind of oversight is costly, not to mention the negative PR values that came with the spill, such as a sign in Chicago that read "Our lobster & shrimp are not from the Gulf Coast."


There is no easy or fast solution. Governments, environmental organizations, civic groups and concerned citizens are doing all they can to bring about an end at some point. But it’s an undefined point because the longer this goes on, the more lingering the effects.


We are mostly dependent on nature now. The healing powers of our environment have to do the hard work of breaking down the man-made elements into more harmless compounds.


As for our neighbors, we can only hope that those responsible for this disaster do the correct thing by them. It is not their fault they are in such a difficult position, both in regards to their livelihood and their future abilities to make a living for them, their families and us.

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