it was a paradise

A couple of weeks ago I cited some comments by Big Oil shill Anastasia Swearingen to the effect that, basically, there’s just no downside to drilling for oil. Whenever, wherever—it’s all good. She was excoriating the federal government for its stubborn unwillingness (so far) to grant drilling leases along the Atlantic Coast to the oil giants standing in line. What’s the hold-up, guys? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Just look at the Gulf, says Swearingen, where pessimists predicted an “uninhabitable wasteland.” But thanks to all the time and money BP has put into restoration, today the Gulf is faring “better than expected by most accounts” and “permanent damage seems less likely.”

You know what? That is some lame shit.

Gulf Cemetery (J Jackson CC)
Gulf Cemetery (J Jackson CC)

About the same time Swearingen’s column appeared, Huff Post splashed up the arresting headline “Gulf Oil Spill Left Rhode Island-Sized Oily ‘Bathtub Ring’ On Seafloor” (Oct. 27). AP writer Seth Borenstein had laid hands on a new study just out from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, arguing that roughly 10 million gallons of oil coagulated over a 1,200-square-mile area surrounding the Macondo well. Oil levels inside the “bathtub ring” registered as much as 10,000 times higher than outside it.

The study also notes that the oil is too degraded to still have its chemical signature. Which means that, you know, it might have come from any spill anywhere and just happened out of sheer coincidence to settle right there around that blown-out BP well. At least that’s what BP spokesman Jason Ryan said: “The authors failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found.”

A year ago, you might remember, a 40,000-pound “tar mat” was pulled from beneath the surf off Isle Grand Terre, 90 miles south of New Orleans. The huge mat—about 165 feet long by 65 feet wide—was actually 85 percent sand, shells, and water, so you could say that the 15 percent of oil residue (a measly 6,000 pounds) was insignificant, unless you happened to be part of the web of life on that oil-infused swath of ocean floor. Oh quit whining!—Jason Ryan again, slightly paraphrased—Look at the big picture: BP has recovered more than 2.7 million pounds of waste from Louisiana shores in 2013 alone, and only like 5 to 15 percent of that had anything to do with oil residue. Don’t you see? BP is cleaning up Louisiana!

And, frankly, BP’s getting a little tired of the lack of love. After all it’s done and continues to do, now some job-killing judge in Louisiana has ruled that the company is guilty of “gross negligence” in the spill, upping the civil penalty—under the Clean Water Act—from $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil to $4,300 per barrel!!! Which could mean as much as an extra $18 billion in fines!!! Sheeeesh. Comforting to know that BP will appeal, and in the years it takes for the case to be resolved, given the going rate of $24 billion in profit per year, it will rake in more than enough cash to cover the cost.

In “The BP Oil Spill and the End of Empire, Louisiana,” recently published in the UNC Press journal Southern Cultures, Tulane historian Andy Horowitz does something Jason Ryan probably didn’t do. He talked to the people who live in coastal Louisiana. People like Karen Hopkins, manager of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, who recalled the time “before offshore drilling really started here,” before the erosion of the coastline and the destruction of the barrier islands: “This place was covered with huge oak trees. It was a paradise, and it still was a paradise before [the BP spill], but I feel it’s over now and the worst is yet to come.”

Horowitz points out that Louisiana has the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States, as well as some of the highest rates of cancer, that oil companies like BP earn billions while Louisiana ranks third in the nation for the percentage of citizens who live below the poverty line.

It’s in that context—of a people in bondage to an economic system that oppresses them and degrades their land and sea—that the BP damage needs to be but never will be calculated. As Horowitz writes, “Silencing work along the coast, making people fear that the food they eat is poisoned, that their very bodies may be poisoned, and that they have no recourse to the industry that caused the harm or the government that was supposed to protect them from it . . . these lessons will be difficult to unlearn and their costs will be hard to measure.”

John Yow

John Yow

John Yow has written two books about birds, both published by UNC Press: The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds (2009) and The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore (2012). His blog, "From Pumpkinvine Creek" ( is generally concerned with the fate that awaits birds and all other species if we don't stop trashing the planet. Yow and his wife Dede live in the woods in northeast Paulding County.