Sunday, June 13, 2010

Oil Business

The blowout of British Petroleum's deep sea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is a bill come due for the people of the Gulf Coast. For the people of Louisiana and Texas,at least, it is a bill that we thought would never have to be paid.

I have lived most of my life on the upper Texas Gulf Coast, in the midst of one of the largest concentrations of petroleum-related industrial activity in the world. In the sixties, when I lived there, the motto of Port Arthur, Texas, a refinery town situated on the Louisiana border, was "We Oil the World!" In those days, the environmental degradation that accompanied the production of petroleum products was seen as a minor inconvenience that was more than compensated for by the prosperity attendant to the "awl bidness." When I complained to my father about the toxic fumes that permeated the air of Port Arthur, he told me that the putrid hydrocarbon odors that made me gag were "the smell of money." This attitude was widespread among Gulf Coast residents who worked in the industry. As time went on, people became more aware of the environment, the attitude of those in the oil business changed slightly--now the story was that the risks posed by the production, transportation, and refining of crude oil could be protected against by technical means and--not to worry--the industry was doing just that.

At no time in my memory were the people of Louisiana and Texas (the two Gulf Coast states that were most involved in oil) ever told by their leaders that we had made a bargain with the rest of the country to accept the environmental harm inherent in petroleum extraction in return for money. Indeed, here on the Gulf Coast, the evironmentalists on the east and west coasts who refused to allow drilling off their coasts were seen as impractical, privileged aesthetes who didn't have enough entrepreneurial gumption to exploit the resources around them. Occasionally someone would point out the hypocrisy of Yankees who drove SUVs but didn't want to see a drilling rig from their beach house, but this trope was not generally pursued because, if you thought about it very long, it necessarily implied that we Gulf Coasters who welcomed the chance to foul our land and waters in order to provide fuel for Northern suburbanites were, in fact, the suckers in the deal.

Now, the note has been called. The marshes and estuaries of the Louisiana coast are becoming more polluted every day. Hundreds of thousand gallons of crude oil are pouring into the open Gulf and will continue to do so for months. While Texas waters have not yet been affected, they no doubt will be. The beaches of the Florida Panhandle, as white as sugar, will soon be blackened, despite the fact that Florida never sold its soul to the awl bidness. And after a hundred years of serfdom, Gulf Coasters can't afford to extract ourselves from this bargain with the devil. Our politicians demand that the federal government allow continued offshore drilling despite the BP disaster, because that's the only way we know to earn a living. Decisions have consequences, but I wish that had told us what the deal was.

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