Louisiana’s Wetlands: A Battered and Bruised Energy Landscape
By Jason Theriot
University of Houston
For nearly a century, the relationship between the oil and gas industry and the Louisiana wetlands has been tenuous at best. Energy development along Louisiana’s coastal areas and offshore has come with mixed blessings for many in the Pelican State. On one hand, it completely transformed the state’s economy. It provided high-paying jobs and improved standard of living for thousands. This new-found wealth allowed families to send their children to college, a luxury experienced by few from the area prior to the 1950s. The revenue generated from oil and gas operations along the coast and offshore has, for more than half-a-century, became the main economic engine that runs the economy and drives the continued modernization of this energy landscape and its urban areas.
The tradeoffs of continued oil and gas development, however, have been great. The maze of oil field canals cut through the marshes and oil pollution in the waters has caused considerable damage to the land and wildlife. The frequent downturns in the oil market and subsequent slow downs in offshore drilling, as manifest by the “oil bust” of the 1980s, have resulted in massive job loss, family dislocation, and drastic reduction in state revenue. Now, in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in a generation, an entire coastal economy and way of life is on the brink of a monumental transformation. A quick glance at the history of the oil and gas industry and its impact on the wetlands can shed light on what is a confusing, disheartening, and challenging time for all of those concerned.
Since the 1920s, Louisiana’s wetlands have been radically altered by oil and gas activities. To develop the prolific oil-bearing salt dome fields in the coastal marshes and shallow bays, the industry had to dredge canals to reach drilling sites and to lay pipelines using fleets of barge-mounted equipment. With few laws designed to regulate land-use patterns in the wetlands and to limit various other industry activities, such as salt water brine discharge into the waters, the fisheries, marshlands, and private property owners ultimately suffered the consequences.
During the first twenty years of development, resource managers and local fishermen began recognizing the effects. The oyster men first sounded the alarm. In 1944, after more than a decade of litigation that sought monetary damages from an oil company for polluting oyster beds, the oyster interests prevailed in the State Supreme Court (see Doucet vs. The Texas Company). With the fear of litigation, coupled with new anti-pollution state regulations, the industry began to curtail its polluting habits in the coastal areas. However, few understood the long-term impact of dredging new canals on the coastal habitat and fisheries, particularly the relationship between canals, salt water intrusion, and land loss. In the 1950s, officials from the state’s Fish and Wildlife agency began publishing articles and organizing meetings with various stakeholders, including oil and gas interests, designed to bring to light the potentially unforeseen impacts of oil and gas activities on coastal wetlands. Although industry engineers began implementing new techniques, such as plugging the canals at multiple intervals, the miles of new canals criss-crossing the marshlands increased dramatically when the industry moved offshore.
Pipelines and canals through the wetlands became an important factor in offshore expansion. Since the 1950s, thousands of miles of large diameter oil and gas pipelines have been built from the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and deep water to transport petroleum to shore. An extensive system of canals to support the offshore industry and large processing facilities built along the coast provided the crucial link between offshore production, which includes foreign imports, and American consumers.
Beginning in the 1970s, scientists started to analyze and report on the impact of OCS activities on the coastal marshes. Salt water brine discharges, oil spills, and canals, they argued, had serious impacts on the health and condition of the wetland environment. Their conclusions, in addition to the emergence of a national environmental movement and new federal laws, provided the impetus for the state to establish its own series of new environmental programs and regulations. Ironically, the building of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) in the 1970s, the nation’s only deepwater “Superport,” paved the way for Louisiana’s Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program in 1980. By establishing new guidelines for operations in the wetlands, the state finally began to regulate land-use and industry activities. It was through CZM that Louisiana finally ended the practice of building large pipeline canals through the fragile marshes and swamps. The State Legislature eventually passed laws that provided a “wetland fund” through oil and gas revenue and taxes to begin rebuilding its damaged coastline.
During the last 40 years, the industry has been resilient in its efforts to explore for, produce, and transport oil and gas from the offshore waters of the Gulf in an environmentally sound way. Barring a handful of major incidences, such as Shell’s Bay Marchand and Chevron’s Main Pass blowouts and subsequent oil spills, the industry and the agency that regulates it have maintained a relatively clean-bill of health in offshore Louisiana.
But the events of April 20, 2010 and the resulting BP oil spill disaster has changed everything in this state. Eleven offshore workers have been killed. The oyster and shrimp boats are parked or temporarily hauling boom out to the barrier islands. The estuaries that support the web of life for hundreds of species in the Gulf may become toxic. Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake as a result of the moratorium that halted work on the 33 exploratory deepwater wells offshore, and the future of the industry and Louisiana’s energy-dependent economy is in question. The iconic images of coastal Louisiana, the fresh seafood and offshore platforms, have now been replaced by tar balls and oil plumes. Prophetically, perhaps, the images of the oil-soaked Brown Pelican—the treasured state bird—suggests that the century-long struggle to find a balance between energy and environment in coastal Louisiana has just gotten tougher.
Jason Theriot is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Houston. He is currently writing a dissertation on the environmental history of the oil and gas industry in coastal Louisiana entitled, “Building America’s Energy Corridor: Oil and Gas Development and Louisiana’s Wetlands.” He is also working on a study for the U.S. Minerals Management Service entitled, “History of the Gulf of Mexico Offshore Oil and Gas Industry During the Deepwater Era.”