It was like watching a bunch of little people clean the world’s largest litter box, with older tarballs dry and easy to bag but recent arrivals messy and laborious.
While I was in Louisiana, there was an event at the Cajundome, in Lafayette, called the Rally for Economic Survival: 11,000 packed the place to hear the governor, the lieutenant governor, and, of all people, the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board rail against the Obama administration for stealing their jobs by imposing a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling.
"Enough is enough!" raged the lieutenant governor, Scott Angelle, in his thick Cajun accent. "Louisiana has a long and strong, distinguished history of fueling America, and we proudly do what few other states are willing to do. ... America is not yet ready to get all of its fuel from the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees!"
True, but of the six billion to seven billion barrels of oil consumed by the U.S. each year, only about 10 percent comes from federal Gulf of Mexico waters; we get the same amount from both the Persian Gulf and Canada. Louisiana is no longer a significant source of crude, on- or offshore. What it does supply is cheap labor and a pliant local government. In this, it's eerily reminiscent of Third World places ruined by oil. The BPs of the world would have you believe oil brings prosperity to the countries where it's discovered, but it brings misery so dependably that economists have a name for the phenomenon: the resource curse.
Ecuador, Venezuela, Iraq: Bad things happen to countries "blessed" with oil. The Niger Delta is the Mississippi River Delta's separated-at-birth twin, offering the scariest cautionary tale of all. This tropical river delta held some of the greatest wetlands on earth, with abundant shellfish, crabs, and shrimp, the foundation of the economy and culture, but it also harbored vast oil reserves. In the past 50 years, Shell has grown preposterously wealthy off that oil, while Nigeria, with the tenth-largest oil reserves in the world, has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Almost three times as much oil has spilled into the Niger Delta as was spilled by the Deepwater Horizon: 546 million gallons and counting. The creeks are black, and the crabs and shrimp are dead. There are always leaking, corroded wellheads and pipelines. Gangs of rebels and oil thieves roam the jungle. Flaring rigs fill the air with mercury, arsenic, and carcinogens. Disease is rampant. The government is cardboard.
Southern Louisiana is no Nigeria, but it's also no longer quite recognizable as the United States. The trailer homes on pilings, the dearth of education, the chronic disease, the fat parish chiefs—I know the Third World when I see it. Cajuns haven't grown rich on crude; Houston has. And when the oil runs out, there's nothing left to fall back on.
I bet Angelle would simply argue that oil is worth billions more than seafood. But that's only because we aren't sophisticated enough to put a value on all the multifarious "ecosystem services" the gulf provides: benefits of the natural world, resources and processes we all too often take for granted. If we were to add these things to the ledger—all that gulf seafood and the health savings from it, the hurricane protection and wildlife habitat in all those marshes, to name only a few—and apply the calculus of their self-perpetuating sustainability, the astronomical value would blow your mind. It leaves petroleum in the pit. We can get oil from a hundred different places. What we can't get elsewhere are the Gulf of Mexico's oyster reefs and wetlands. Best on the planet. How much are all those acres of disappearing land worth? What price the mental anxiety of a culture watching its homeland disintegrate? How much added value do you assign oyster reefs because they've never, ever blown up and killed anyone? It's only ignorance—an inability to tally all the gains and losses—that makes oil look good.
AFTER PETIT BOIS, WE'D SAILED to the west end of Dauphin Island, anchoring near Katrina Cut, a rift in the island opened up by the hurricane. These barrier islands, which are a mere 3,000 years old—"not two generations of cypress," said Bill—get regularly knocked about by storms. Two rigs near our anchorage had beeped annoyingly through the night, and the next morning, when Jimbo and I looked to marinate, a strange black slick of congealed matter was drifting past the boat. We raised anchor and headed for Grand Bay.
If we were still hoping to find the old gulf, we met it sooner than expected. Looming beyond Grand Bay, a black bank of cloud sucked the color out of the western sky and rose imperiously into the troposphere, flicking snake tongues of lightning at the sea. The water turned a psychotic green. A mitt of wind came across the surface and swatted Dolphin's Waltz like a toy. "Better put the sugar to bed!" said Jimbo. We could see the Alabama shrimp fleet hauling ass for the shelter of Bayou la Batre, their hulls glowing white against the charcoal sky.