The Big Greasy: a voyage to the Oil Capital of the US

by by Natalie Jablonski

In June several friends and I bicycled through Louisiana. Headed for New Orleans, we took the River Road from Baton Rouge, snaking along with the Mississippi on our left. A couple miles outside Donaldsonville, a sheriff drove past us with his lights on but no siren. He pulled over in front of us, got out of his car and said, “Did you folks happen to notice a fertilizer plant back there, pass by a couple of times?” Of course we had noticed it. How could fail to notice a sprawling behemoth of giant white tanks and pipes and ramps and towers? The officer continued: “Did one of you happen to take a picture of that fertilizer plant?” We looked at each other. My friend said, “Yeah, I took a picture.” The officer told him he needed to delete the picture because Homeland Security regulations dictate that you can’t take pictures of a petrochemical plant, can’t even stop in the vicinity of one, shouldn’t really even look too long at one, as a matter of fact. Oh, we said, we didn’t know about that. My friend deleted his picture. The officer was pretty nice about it. Then he requested our names and birthdates. We gave them to him without protest. We didn’t want any trouble.
Louisiana is the largest producer of crude oil in the country, if you include the offshore rigs on the Outer Continental Shelf. Three million barrels of oil are refined here each day. Every few miles along the River Road, we passed another gargantuan refinery or chemical plant. Life in the US relies on petrochemicals, and River Road is where they are made. The signs on the plants read ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips. The list of companies went on and on, their refineries and chemical plants dominating the landscape.

Dirty Money
The recent BP disaster has highlighted the risks and costs of the petroleum industry. But in reality, the burden of petroleum has been borne by Louisianans since 1901, when the first oil well was drilled in the state. Texaco was one of the first to capitalize on the oil reserves in Louisiana, and from the beginning, many locals resented the company’s presence. In a series of oral histories collected by the US Department of the Interior, residents of the coastal communities of Golden Meadows and Leeville describe the mixed blessing of Texaco’s arrival. Chester Charmie recounted the poverty that plagued the region which depended almost entirely on fishing and trapping until the 1930s: “People had no money. They had no money.” Texaco offered wages up to four times higher than what the average fisherman could make. Pershing Lefort recounted how without the oil money, “We would have stayed poor forever.”
Money poured in as more companies entered the market. Royalties and severance taxes on the oil companies brought in state revenue for schools and other public services, in an unprecedented stream of income. Offshore drilling began in 1947 and brought even more profits. In the 1970s, oil and gas were responsible for nearly 40 percent of state revenue, and at its peak in 1982, generated nearly $100 million in taxes. According to an industry study, the oil and gas industry and the supporting businesses currently generate 320,000 jobs and $70 billion each year.
At the same time, the toxicity of the oil was apparent from the start. Lefort remembers how an explosion at one of the wells sprayed salt and sulfur over the town, eating through roofs and killing vegetation. He said, “It was like living in a desert or something. Everything was dead, everything.”
The industry boomed. But the costs of these profits were great.
Even before the oil spill, the ecological damage to Louisiana’s coastline was unquantifiable. The process of extracting oil involves dredging canals and cutting through marshlands. Coastal scientists say that the oil and gas industry are responsible for at least one third of the state’s loss of wetlands, which the US Geological Survey estimates to be retreating at a rate of 25 square miles per year. In addition to its direct impact on wildlife and the fishing industry, the loss of wetlands also leads to more intense storms, which are no longer buffered by wetlands before reaching the shore.

Side effects may include...
The oil and gas industry, however, is not limited to drilling, onshore or off. According to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the industry is made up of four segments: exploration and drilling, refining, marketing, and transportation.
Most of Louisiana’s oil, gas and chemical industry is centered along an 80 mile stretch of road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The road that my friends and I biked along is officially referred to as the Industrial Corridor—or, more popularly, ‘Cancer Alley.’ One hundred fifty-six petrochemical plants line the corridor, producing 129 million pounds of toxins each year. That’s six percent of what is produced in the entire US, concentrated into a strip of land less than a hundred miles long.
Louisiana has the second highest rate of cancer in the US. It also refines three million barrels of oil each day and produces one quarter of the nation’s petrochemicals, second only to Texas. It is difficult to prove a link between human health problems and prevalence of industrial plants, but the connection seems clear in the minds of many residents of ‘Cancer Alley.’ A 1994 article by The Nation reported that unreasonable numbers of rare cancers like neuroblastomas and rhabdomyosarcomas were showing up in children living in towns along River Road. Anecdotal evidence points to frighteningly high levels of unusual cancers, in addition to asthma and other illnesses associated with environmental pollution.
The Louisiana Tumor Registry insists that their data shows no evidence of higher rates of cancer along the Industrial Corridor. In fact, these parishes often have lower rates than those of Louisiana as a whole. However, environmental justice advocates point out that the Tumor Registry keeps track only of cancers on the parish level. These cancer clusters seem to occur only in the immediate vicinity of the Industrial Corridor, when looking at the entire parish as a whole, the pockets of higher rates don’t show up.
J. Timmons Roberts, Director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Brown University, lived in New Orleans for ten years. His book, Chronicles from the
Environmental Justice Frontline, deals with the struggles of citizens’ groups in Louisiana to assert their right to justice. He explains that these kinds of small-scale studies are notoriously hard to do, due to privacy restrictions on data. In addition, he adds that the State Department of Health is underfunded, and that the Cancer Registry is sometimes known to have “very bad data.”
Roberts also notes that government regulation of the petrochemical industry is suspect, and describes a combination of “terrible loopholes, terrible enforcement” that keeps oil companies in the clear. “There’s huge pressure from industry groups for [the Department of Environmental Quality] to be not a very effective agency,” Roberts explains. According to the environmental justice group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, between 1999 and 2001, the LDEQ did not collect $4.5 out of $6 billion in fines assessed, calling into question the agency’s credibility.
Communities along the Mississippi are predominantly African American, with high poverty rates. Property values are low, preventing many from moving elsewhere. Many live in fear of accidents and toxic exposure. Having passed through some of these towns myself, it is hard to imagine anyone choosing to live here. It’s not even as simple as high rates of health problems. The refineries and chemical plants are monstrous—massive creatures taking up dozens of acres. Strange smells fill the air. Roads are deserted, and the landscape is bleak. It feels simply inhospitable.
Around the country, hearts have gone out to Gulf Coast residents suffering from the effects of the oil spill. But even faced with the ugliness of the disaster, few voices have come out against the oil industry as a whole. Louisiana depends on it. The country depends on it. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu is calling for an end to the moratorium on offshore drilling, citing the billions of dollars in economic productivity that are being lost. “We need to get back to work to build this region, and we intend to do so,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Of the $70 billion generated by the oil and gas industry, only $18 billion go to wages and benefits. Taxes make up another $2 billion. And the rest? Your guess is as good as mine. Louisiana still has the second highest poverty rate in the country.
It would be no simple task to extricate the oil industry from Louisiana. But with millions of gallons of oil still in the Gulf, it is clear that the cost of continuing as usual is more than we bargained for.

Natalie Jablonski B’10.5 is going off the grid.