Only Six Years After BP Oil Disaster, Gulf Coast Is Faced With New Drilling

Still recovering from the worst oil spill in U.S. history, Gulf Coast activists battle the threat of new offshore oil wells.

Photo by ssuaphoto / iStock. 

The horizon looked like peanut butter.

That’s what Cherri Foytlin thought six years ago as she sat in a boat speeding toward the largest oil spill ever in the Gulf of Mexico.

“That’s when I realized how incredibly fragile this earth is.”

Then a journalist for a local Louisiana paper, Foytlin enlisted a fisherman and his son to give her a behind-the-scenes look at the damage caused by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion that killed 11 people and spewed 205.8 million gallons of oil over 87 days in 2010.

They didn’t have to go far. From the brown water, the fisherman pulled out a pelican. The bird was convulsing and covered in oil. They steered the boat back toward land, but it was too late. Foytlin watched the fisherman cry as his son hugged him.

“That’s when I realized how incredibly fragile this Earth is,” Foytlin said. “When I got home, I had to take a really hard look at myself: ‘How have I contributed to this situation?’”

Foytlin was one of many people across the nation asking themselves that question. It wasn’t the first time Gulf-area residents were forced to stare at the crippling effects of offshore drilling on their communities. But it was the first time they felt their struggle with big oil sparked the world’s attention.

That’s important as the Department of the Interior is collecting comments through June 7 on a five-year oil- and gas-leasing plan that expands drilling in the Gulf. The plan proposes to sell 10 leases between 2017 and 2022.

Advocacy groups attended hearings in April and rallied in New Orleans against Bureau of Ocean Energy Management auctions for new oil leases on March 23. Dozens of advocacy groups in the Gulf area have been fighting offshore drilling and pollution for years. Faced with the threat of new rigs in the water, they combined their efforts to bus hundreds of supporters to The Big Easy to speak out against these sales.

The energy was electric, supporters said, as they marched into the Superdome and chanted “Shut it down!” and “The Gulf is not for sale!” at the foot of the auction stage. The chanting was so loud it drowned out the auctioneer’s voice, said Blake Kopcho, oceans campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Activists in the Gulf-area and nationwide are calling for an end to new oil leases, and some are seeking to end drilling altogether.

Advocacy has effectively halted drilling in the past, most recently when the Obama administration threw out its plan to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The current activist efforts are drawing enough concern that the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry released a statement warning that reducing Gulf oil drilling “poses significant risks to the nation’s energy and economic security as well as livelihoods and communities across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.”

Activists in the Gulf area and nationwide are calling for an end to new oil leases, and some are seeking to end drilling altogether. Many were spurred to action by the BP oil spill. For others, this effort has been ongoing as long as oil rigs have dotted the horizon.

“BP changed things,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which holds petrochemical companies accountable for air pollution. Since October 2015, the group has been advocating leaving oil in the ground—and they’re far from alone. Community members have also been voicing a hope for the end of big oil in Louisiana, Rolfes said. “I can’t emphasize enough the historic nature of it.”

The havoc wreaked by oil is not only tied to the 2010 spill that damaged the local fishing industry and wetlands. Pipes transporting oil to the mainland leak into the ground and water, refineries discharge pollutants into the air, and the continuous burning of oil causes climate change, which, more and more, is being linked to natural disasters like hurricanes and floods.

Yet many wonder how soon offshore drilling can realistically end. Oil pumped from the Gulf of Mexico constitutes 17 percent of all U.S. crude oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Currently 4,300 drilling leases exist off the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and each of them carries the promise of jobs.

But low oil prices, the movement to divest from oil, the end to Atlantic offshore drilling, and the offshore leases that aren’t being grabbed by oil companies are all signs that the U.S. is economically ready to start transitioning away from oil, said Jan Lars Mueller, executive director of The Energy Xchange.

“The smart approach is to be making a deliberate transition,” Mueller said. “To make it politically possible, we can’t say the Gulf of Mexico is off limits. But we can say that 25 percent of the Gulf is off limits. That will make the industry transition smoother, saner, and probably more successful.”

Grassroots activism plays an important role in this push. Some of that work is more visible, like holding a rally or placing political pressure on oil companies to install air monitors. Other work involves amplifying the voices of local residents and countering the industry’s pro-oil narratives.

Advocates say the most inclusive rallying cry should focus on a just transition that considers the needs of all Louisiana residents.

For example, Bridge the Gulf, an organization to which Foytlin contributes, helps Gulf community members tell stories about the racial, social, and environmental justice issues they face every day. As the oil industry denies the extent of the pollution from its refineries, a first-person narrative by Mississippi resident Jennifer Crosslin explains how residents in the Cherokee subdivision, 500 feet from a Chevron refinery, experience anxiety, neurological disorders, and sinus problems, but can’t afford to move.

Monique Verdin does similar storytelling through her work as an interdisciplinary artist. Verdin is a member of the United Houma Nation, the biggest state-recognized Indigenous tribe in southeast Louisiana. In 2012, she created My Louisiana Love, a documentary that tells the story of her Native American community’s struggle to live in southeast Louisiana despite government displacement and environmental disaster.

“People feel they have no voice,” Verdin said, even though they suffer the direct effects—in the form of pollution-related disease—of drilling and refining on the Gulf. And they are particularly vulnerable to the climate disasters related to worldwide oil consumption.

While Verdin and other advocates say they aspire to see a day when Louisiana doesn’t rely on oil for its economy, they also point out the danger of removing the oil industry overnight.

“We ride the wave of the boom-and-bust of oil and gas,” she said.

That’s why advocates say the most inclusive rallying cry should focus on a just transition that considers the needs of all Louisiana residents, especially the poor, who may rely on the oil industry for their livelihoods.

Other advocacy work is being fought through the judicial system. BP is still settling lawsuits for billions of dollars for the damage inflicted on communities, industries, and local governments. In April, a federal judge ordered BP to pay $20 billion to the five Gulf states affected by the oil spill. The money will be paid out over 16 years.

This month, BP agreed to pay $2.3 billion to those in the seafood industry whose incomes were drastically affected when the oil damaged ocean crops including oysters, blue crab, and shrimp. Fishermen brought in 53 million pounds of blue crab in 2009, but only 38.8 million pounds in 2013, according to Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The Center for Biological Diversity recently filed a lawsuit against the federal government for waivers of environmental reviews for offshore drilling. The Department of Interior has released 500 pages of rules surrounding offshore drilling, but Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center, calls them “too little, too late.” An end to offshore drilling, not tougher rules, is the only solution that will protect the safety of the Gulf’s communities and environment, she said.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board also found the efforts of the federal government lacking. “[A] culture of minimal regulatory compliance continues to exist in the Gulf of Mexico and risk reduction continues to prove elusive,” the report said.

Gulf residents say they’re hopeful that the world is finally starting to tune in to the disrespect they’ve felt from the oil industry for decades.  

“In this part of the world government isn’t used to resistance,” said Rolfes, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We’ve allowed it to happen and now we’re saying we’re not going to allow it to happen anymore.”