Obama's Gulf Choices

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Getty Images

Understand that the BP oil spill currently tarring the Gulf of Mexico doesn't just affect Louisiana but the entire country. A third of domestic seafood in the United States comes from Louisiana waters: oysters, crabs, shrimp, redfish, trout, crawfish and catfish are all caught and farmed there. It's the largest fishing industry in the lower 48 states (only Alaska is bigger), and it employs thousands of fishers along the Louisiana coast who supply Whole Foods, Sam's Clubs, Red Lobsters and other markets and restaurants around the country. 

More than half of the fishers affected by this spill are Vietnamese. Since the 1950s, thousands of Vietnamese families have settled in New Orleans, particularly East New Orleans, which is a historically African American middle-to-upper-class neighborhood. The Mary Queen of Vietnam Church is one of the leading community organizations in the region and often works with black religious and justice communities, notably the Micah Project and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, to protest toxic landfills.

The Obama administration will need to make a definitive decision about how the livelihoods of these communities will be protected.

Despite some 200,000 gallons of crude oil being spilled in the Gulf every day from the Deepwater Horizon incident, and damages estimated at between $5 billion and $15 billion, President Obama has clung to offshore drilling as an imperative for his energy policy. Less than a month ago, he announced that the Outer Continental Shelf of the Gulf would be open for oil-exploration leases after a moratorium on drilling expired in 2008. While the spill has caused the president to temporarily suspend lease approval, he has not backed down from the long-term vision for Gulf drilling.

But all of this flies in the face of promises Obama also made about coastal and wetland restoration. The president has committed almost a half-billion dollars to these efforts. But one major oil spill, like the one now, could cancel out any serious Gulf-protection efforts. That begs the question: Can Obama simultaneously pursue drilling off the Gulf Coast and restore it?


If security is the utmost concern, then the answer is no. Coastal restoration is certain to secure the Gulf — and America — not only by protecting near-coastal cities such as New Orleans from utter devastation but also a major portion of the country's seafood production, not to mention the necessary importing of goods and materials that keep the nation's economy afloat. Drilling inevitably leads to accidents, whether man-made (as seen today) or nature-made (as seen when hurricanes like Katrina and Gustav toppled oil rigs and wells, spilling toxic chemicals all over the New Orleans region).

This observable difference has not figured into Obama's calculations though. At the height of the spill crisis, the president said: "I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security."

When not defending the oil industry, Obama has taken coastal security seriously. In March, the president released the Roadmap for Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration, an 18-month plan for rebuilding and reinforcing the natural environments of marshes, habitats and wildlife-management areas. It was also established to "resolve policy and process obstacles," among those, "water-resource policies that unintentionally inhibit ecosystem restoration efforts."

To finance this plan, Obama included in his 2011 budget $35.6 million for the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Program, $5 million to restore fish and wildlife habitat, and $5 million for integrating ocean and coastal mapping. This is in addition to $18 million given to the LCA program from the 2010 budget and $439 million from the 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act for barrier island and ecosystem restoration projects.


The wetlands, stretching from the tip of the Mississippi Delta "bird's foot" all the way into East New Orleans, once reached farther out into the Gulf. In the last 75 years, though, more than 2,300 square miles of wetlands have been lost to erosion. The BP spill has already infiltrated the marsh and stands to weather away even more of the area — another reason why coastal restoration and offshore drilling don't mix.

Thanks to the construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, that erosion was already happening. The MRGO, as it's called, is a 76-mile navigation channel that alone is responsible for destroying more than 27,000 acres of wetlands. As a result of MRGO, storm waves from Hurricane Katrina had a clear runway to East New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward, where the worst levee breaches and flooding occurred. Congress recognized the path of destruction MRGO helped facilitate and, through its Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2006 and Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007, it effectively helped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut down the channel.


However, as the MRGO Must Go Coalition recently reported, the closing of MRGO is still incomplete. The WRDA requires the corps to develop a plan to restore the natural features of the ecosystem, meaning its wetlands and wildlife habitats. That plan — the MRGO Ecosystem Restoration Study— is scheduled to be released this month.

But how this plan will compete or co-exist with plans for expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf Coast has yet to be addressed by the Obama administration. 

Obama says that the drilling provides thousands of jobs, but just a few of those go to low-skilled populations, like those in disadvantaged communities. The exceptions are jobs in toxic waste and oil-spill cleanups, dangerous jobs that even today BP is doing criminal background checks for, and that will keep many who've already been barred from the workforce unemployed.


In Jefferson Parish, about 30 miles south of New Orleans, is the town of Lafitte, a place where streets and landmarks won't show up on your Google Maps or GPS. It's the home of hundreds of fishers, shrimpers and crab catchers, some of whom identify as "coonass," or Cajun. Many are white and poor and can't get employment due to the background checks and drug tests. If they can't get work, poor African Americans living farther inland are in an even more disadvantaged position. Few jobs have been made available for Vietnamese fishers and boaters, as well.

There are alternatives, such as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, which was introduced to Congress in May 2009. The act would provide thousands of jobs throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, helping residents of all backgrounds preserve and protect their coasts. Coastal restoration is the only kind of economic and environmental security that is needed. The hope is that the president will make the right choice.


Brentin Mock, a frequent contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.

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