The 2010 Oil Spill and Our Ecological Debt to Louisiana

The 2010 Oil Spill and Our Ecological Debt to Louisiana

On April 20, 2010, an rig named Deepwater Horizon, operated by the oil giant BP, exploded off the coast of Louisiana killing 11 workers and forcing the evacuation of the platform. Additionally, between 795,000 and 3.9 million liters of crude oil were estimated by be leaking into the Gulf of Mexico each day since the rig exploded and sank.(1) It will take months to assess the environmental impact of the disaster and potentially years for the region to recover. But who is ultimately responsible for this catastrophe and how might our own dependence on oil irreparably damage the coastal communities of Louisiana?

Ecological Debt

Much of the debate following this ecological/technological disaster focused on BP’s culpability and whether or not corporate executives knew of critical safety risks and engineering flaws on this particular platform.(2) Many have wondered who will pay for cleanup of the spill, with BP eventually agreeing to foot the bill.(3) This merited debate places the blame squarely on the shoulders of greedy, corporate power wielders, while failing to acknowledge the responsibility of the average citizen/consumer for creating the conditions that allow technological/ecological disasters such as this to occur. Louisiana is the place, more than any other, where technology and industry (particularly dirty industry) meet environmentally sensitive areas. Accordingly, we must recognize that the people of Louisiana shoulder the burden of the region’s oil and gas industry, while seeing disproportionately few of the benefits. Those of us living in other parts of North America enjoy being able to purchase cheap gasoline, but we experience few of the environmental impacts caused by its drilling, refining and transportation.

Sociologists often use the term “ecological debt” to explain the discrepancy in the proportion of carbon released by countries of the global north (most of it) and countries of the global south (little of it), coupled with the severe environmental consequences of climate change endured by the people of the global south.(4) In other words, one part of the globe reaps the benefits while another suffers the consequences. Over time, a moral debt accrues to the region that is able to prosper from this exploitive relationship. Borrowing this term, it is evident that the people of North America owe an enormous ecological debt (and economic debt) to the people of Louisiana. While most would agree that BP should claim responsibility, this disaster affects Louisiana’s natural ecosystem which, in turn, affects the livelihoods of people (shrimpers, crawfishers etc.) who depend upon these resources to survive. Some have argued that the Gulf of Mexico has become an “industrial sacrifice zone,” a place where we turn a blind eye to pollution in order to keep the wheels of economic growth turning.(5)

The Gulf Coast (particularly Louisiana) has also become somewhat of a social sacrifice zone. Because of the interdependence of human societies and the environment, any ecological sacrifices made also affect the livelihoods of one of North America’s most socially vulnerable hinterlands. The oil spill, while a novel event, is part and parcel of a much larger historical sequence whereby raw materials are extracted from and processed in the south gulf, the costs are contained there and the benefits are enjoyed elsewhere.

It is no secret that oil greases the wheels of our economy; no other fuel is as energy dense, capable of so much output for so little energy invested. As James Kuntsler observed, “fossil fuels provide for each person in an industrialized country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal.”(6) This imagery of slavery is particularly apt when talking about the Deep South, a region barely three generations removed from chattel slavery. However, I would point out that in this particular case the people of the Gulf Coast are subservient to those in other regions of the country. They bear most of the costs of our oil-dependent economy, with disproportionately few returns. In the remainder of this article, I argue that we owe the people of Louisiana and of the Gulf Coast both an ecological and economic debt.

Half-Dead Wastelands and Cancer Alley

To understand how this ecological debt to Louisiana accumulated, we must first understand the unique geographic history of the region. Most know that southern Louisiana is a marshy, low-elevation, hurricane-prone region, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed in 2005. Fewer people recognize that this vulnerability was created and sustained by the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. From the 1910s to the 1940s, oil companies set up refineries in south Louisiana as quickly as they could; by 1951, there were 51 plants along the lower Mississippi.(7) One of the challenges that industry faced was navigating the 70 miles of winding Mississippi River that connect the Gulf to the city of New Orleans, home to much of the region’s refining capacity. Industry required large shipping channels, which could easily be carved through the swampy landscape. As a result, local authorities and business leaders met with the Army Corps of Engineers to pitch the excavation of a straight waterway connecting New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Completed in 1965, this canal came to be known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO,”‘ in local parlance). MR-GO was never heavily trafficked, and by the 1990s, only five percent of port traffic utilized the MR-GO. Besides allowing saltwater from the Gulf to intrude upon sensitive wetlands, creating “half-dead wastelands,”(8) it also created a convenient hurricane superhighway. Instead of traversing many miles of wetlands, storm surge generated by a hurricane could now travel straight to the heart of New Orleans, as it did on August 29, 2005, inundating the city. In sum, the creation of shipping channels was done to facilitate the production and refining of oil and petrochemicals, but these channels endangered natural ecosystems and human populations alike. The Hurricane Katrina tragedy would not have been so severe if the natural landscape of southern Louisiana had not been altered to facilitate the oil and gas industry.(9) The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina depended on the industry-driven reconfiguration of landscape, which helped multinational corporations prosper, but also helped people outside of the region fill their tanks with cheaper gasoline.

The creation of such shipping channels along with the building of New Orleans’ levee system also altered the way that sediments travel down the Mississippi River and deposit at the mouth. For thousands of years, the delivery of sediment at the mouth of the Mississippi ensured the replenishment of Louisiana’s wetlands. Precisely because of the canal and levee system, which divert sediment from taking their nature course, the Louisiana wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate. During the past 50 or so years, Louisiana has lost as average of 25 square miles per year, which equates to a football field every 30 minutes.(10) This means that each day, week, month and year human settlements (including New Orleans) move closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico, with less and less protection from storm surge and inundation. Today, the only things deposited at the mouth of the river are fertilizer and pesticide runoff from Midwestern farms, along with petrochemical sludge from Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, which combine to create an enormous dead zone in the northern Gulf. The changes in landscape were undertaken, in large part, to facilitate the needs of commerce and industry, but they also put New Orleans’ predominantly African-American and poor population at risk. If Hurricane Katrina had made landfall in 1945, instead of 2005, the surge that arrived in New Orleans would have been as much as five to ten feet shallower than it was.(11) Quite possibly, there would have been no flooding at all.

It has also been well documented that the mere existence of refineries and petrochemical plants in the region make life qualitatively worse for the people of Louisiana. Though surely these facilities provide good jobs in a region with a lagging economy, they also exert untold misery on Louisiana’s most vulnerable people. In his book “Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor,” Steve Lerner documents the struggles of the community of Norco, Louisiana (the word Norco actually derives from “New Orleans Refining Company”). Located squarely within Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” residents of Norco experienced chronic health problems and severely truncated life expectancies over a 30-year period. Residents told stories of breathing problems, headaches, nausea, decreased fertility, blurred vision, allergies and frequent diagnoses of hyper-aggressive cancers.(12) Lerner also documents the unwillingness of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to investigate any such claims. Worried instead about the economic base that oil companies provided for state coffers. Industry underestimated the total pollutants they released, while the state either failed to inspect the facilities or refused to fine responsible parties.(13)

According to Robert Bullard’s seminal work “Dumping in Dixie,” resource extraction and refining boosters convinced many local communities in the Gulf states that they must choose between jobs (at the facilities) and their health. Yet, because hazardous facilities tend to be sited near poor and vulnerable communities, those who suffer the most are also, paradoxically, those who benefit the least from these facilities.(14) As Bullard pointed out, “costs are more localized, while benefits are more dispersed.” Bullard argued that this phenomenon is made possible by “A colonial mentality” in the South whereby “local government and big business take advantage of people who are politically and economically powerless.”(15) I argue that by participating in an oil economy that permits and depends upon this sort of environmental inequity, we are amassing an enormous ecological debt to the people of Louisiana, as they bear the consequences (through jeopardized health) and we absorb the benefits (through cheaper products and the lifestyle of convenience that oil allows).

Oil Spills and other environmental catastrophes also threaten the livelihoods and strong ties to community that define southern Louisiana. When the leak is finally plugged, those who depend upon the natural resources of the Gulf and wetlands may be out of work. Already, legal teams are descending upon the region and many lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those whose incomes are threatened.(16) Since the publication of Kai Erikson’s “Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood,” sociologists have been sensitive to the effects of environmental and technological disasters on communities.(17) Disasters affect individuals, but they also tear apart bonds among neighbors, coworkers and family members, effectively disabling the community as a source of resilience. Research into the Exxon Valdez oil spill shows that protracted litigation can erode small communities and affect the social bonds that they share.(18) While the oil spill will surely affect the environment and, by extension, the livelihoods of those engaged in resource-based occupations, we must be cautious to work to preserve the integrity of south Louisiana communities, wherever possible. The job loss and litigation experienced by communities and families can potentially serve as a second disaster, long after the oil has been cleaned and represents one additional way in which the people of the region are affected by their proximity to intensive oil extraction.

At an economic level, through most of Louisiana’s recent history, the state was victimized by contracts with the federal government that did not allow the state to profit from its oil riches. The 2006 Spike Lee film about Hurricane Katrina, “When the Levees Broke,” drew popular attention to the fact that the state of Louisiana receives no revenues from the oil that is drilled off of its coast, despite the fact that other states do receive such proceeds. Yet, Louisiana produces and/or refines roughly one-fifth of all oil consumed in the United States. As a number of voices in the film echoed, if Louisiana were to secede from the union and sell their oil at fair market prices, that new nation would be exceedingly wealthy. But, as it stands, Louisiana remains one of the poorest states in the nation, largely because the state government fails to benefit from the enormous wealth created off its shores and in its refineries. In 2006, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco threatened to block new offshore leases unless the state received its fair share of proceeds. Ultimately, this led to passing of the Domenici-Landrieu Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (2006), which ensured that Louisiana receives 32 percent of all of the revenues generated from offshore operations covering eight million acres in the Gulf. Although this change is positive, it cannot change the reality that for decades the state government received little revenue from such operations, resulting in a debt still owed by the remainder of the nation.

The above examples document that the production of oil and petroleum products is actually quite a bit more costly (particularly for people of the Gulf Coast) than the prices we pay at the pump would have us believe. According to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, American consumers paid about $3 per gallon for gasoline in mid-2007. At that same time, the actual cost per gallon (taking into account all short-term and long-term indirect costs) was actually about $15 per gallon.(19) The $12 difference between what I pay for gasoline and the actual cost of that gasoline is paid by the people in producing regions who disproportionately suffer from “natural” disasters, pollution and health complications, as well as the military costs involved in protecting supply lines from the Middle East and North Africa. The recent oil spill adds yet another market distortion to this equation; we continue to pay low prices for gasoline, while the people of the Gulf Coast must deal with the environmental, social and economic fallout from the catastrophe.

Repayment Plan

How can we repay our accumulated debt to the people of Louisiana? I suggest a few basic steps:

  1. We must fund, at the federal level, a comprehensive flood protection system for the city of New Orleans and for all other low-lying inhabited regions of the Gulf Coast. Though funding bills have passed Congress, the system requires more input before people of the region can have any assurance that they will be protected from future storm surge events. Few people in the New Orleans metropolitan area believe that they are safer today than they were on August 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina, and there is little engineering evidence that they are. Though federal funding has added $2.5 billion of value to New Orleans’ flood protection system since Katrina, the pace has been slow and the Army Corps of Engineers admit that many projects will not be complete until June 1, 2011 (nearly six years after Katrina). According to one levee district official, “our position is the levees and floodwalls are designed to protect the property of our citizens, not their lives and they should always heed the advice to evacuate.”(20) Despite the snail’s pace, there is surprisingly little political momentum in Washington, DC, to fund projects in Louisiana. Often, when I discuss my research with people outside of my profession, they express little sympathy for people who “shouldn’t be living below sea level anyway.” This view, imbued with racism and classism, explains why funding for flood protection projects is still lacking, while failing to recognize the benefits we each accrue through the consumption of Louisiana’s natural resources and industrial output.
  2. We must ensure that corporations drilling for and refining oil adhere to the strictest safety and environmental health standards. State Departments of Environmental Quality and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must ensure that corporations are held accountable for the health of the environment and their employees. In the days and weeks following the Gulf debacle, other jurisdictions reaffirmed their commitment to preventing such a catastrophe. For example, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, in Canada, promised to reassess the technology and oversight procedures used in their own offshore drilling operations.(21) If steps like this result in concrete actions to ensure environmental responsibility, they should be applauded. However, they still do little to decrease our dependence on oil.
  3. Louisiana, as the largest domestic producer of oil, must continue to receive revenues from the oil that is drilled offshore and processed within the state. Though the state began collecting these proceeds in 2008, in financial terms, it only begins to make up for the decades in which the state of Louisiana was not allowed by the federal government to take a share of oil and gas revenues. This point is important, as Louisiana suffers from chronic poverty, high unemployment and other social ills.
  4. We must fund and undertake an initiative to replenish Louisiana’s wetlands. The wetlands that separate the city of New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico are disappearing at an alarming rate, placing coastal cities and towns in peril. Since the people of the Gulf Coast provide needed resources to the rest of the nation, protecting these coastal cities through wetland restoration is paramount to protecting these coastal communities. Though ambitious coastal restoration initiatives exist, such as the Coast 2050 partnership among various levels of government, non-for-profits and private organizations, federal monies for these sorts of projects are still lacking.
  5. In order to ensure the well-being of affected communities, we must compensate those whose livelihoods depend upon the health of the wetlands and Gulf waters. Not only must we compensate them out of compassion, but because each and every one of us must accept some responsibility for the loss of income experienced by the shrimpers, crabbers, fishermen of the Gulf Coast. Several Louisiana shrimpers recently filed a lawsuit, accusing the operators of the rig of negligence and seeking millions in damages. If their suit is granted “class action” status, they may represent any or all Louisianans who lost income as a result of the disaster.(22) BP and its rig operator, Transocean Ltd. face at least 36 additional lawsuits, as well.(23) Despite its effects on community, which are well documented, successful litigation, combined with humanitarian aid, is the best available option for out-of-work fisherpersons and shrimpers should the region’s stocks of seafood perish from this catastrophe.
  6. We must also decrease our dependence on oil. Not foreign oil. Not Middle Eastern oil. All oil. Though critics would argue that such a development would cost many oil workers and refiners their jobs, I would argue that it would also maintain the environmental (and, therefore, economic) viability of the region, while also preserving the jobs of those who work in agriculture and aquaculture. The prospects of transitioning to an oil-free economy seem bleak though, with President Obama campaigning for increased offshore drilling only a few weeks before this catastrophe.(24) This catastrophic event should make us question whether pursuing more offshore drilling opportunities, as President Obama has proposed, is the wisest energy policy decision. When drilling, transporting and refining oil, there are always risks. Though we can and do implement measures to decrease the probability of such events, disaster scholars often point out that cities, states and nations should be thinking about how to eliminate the possibility of such events.(25) Planning should incorporate possibilistic, not probabilistic thinking; with low-probability, high-impact events such as oil spills, sound planning considers what could possibly happen in a worst-case scenario. And the only way to eliminate the possibility of catastrophic oil spill events is to decrease or eliminate our use of oil.
  7. Lastly, when a disastrous event does affect the people of this region, it is crucial that we remember our own role in it. Though, surely, corporations have a responsibility to protect the surrounding ecosystems and communities, errors do happen. When they do, it is important to remember that such disasters occur during the provision of a commodity that we all use every day. In North America we are dependent upon oil for food production (petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides), food transportation, road construction, building construction, home heating and cooling and for our daily transportation needs. In this sense, decreasing our dependence on petroleum products (not simply imported oil) is the only sure-fire way to mitigate the risks associated with the recovery of oil.

Wake-Up Call

The steps above add up to a massive reinvestment in the Gulf South region and in Louisiana in particular. North America extracts resources from Louisiana, but has done little to shore up the infrastructure and shield the livelihoods of people in this region. We treat it as a resource-rich hinterland and its people as an easily exploitable labor force. If we hope to mitigate the effects of industrial/ecological disasters like the oil spill, we must first and foremost invest resources into the people of the region.

Because our dependence on oil surely will not end tomorrow, each and every one of us who utilize oil for fueling our vehicles, fertilizing our food or making our plastic products (which includes all of us), should acknowledge the ecological and economic debt that we owe to the people of Louisiana. Although I live far from the Gulf of Mexico, I purchase the very same product that fouled their waters and challenged their livelihoods, yet I will likely see no economic or environmental repercussions where I live (except, perhaps, gasoline that is marginally more expensive). Each of us must acknowledge that our convenience comes at a cost.

Renowned disaster scholar Charles Perrow wrote, “Hurricane Katrina was not even a wake-up call. We hit the snooze alarm instead.”(26) It is my hope that the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill will prompt us to finally wake up and challenge the environmental and social inequalities that have made the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast second-class citizens.


1. Reuters News Service. “Black Tide.” 2 May 2010.
2. Leopold, Jason. 30 April 2010. “Whistleblower: BP Risks More Massive Catastrophes in Gulf.”
3. Breed, Alan and Holbrook Mohr. 3 May 2010. “British Petroleum Says it Will Pay for Gulf Oil Spill’s Cleanup.” Associated Press.
4. Foster, John Bellamy. 2009. “The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet.” New York: Monthly Review Press. Pp. 242-247.
5. Philpott, Tom. 29 April 2010. “Gulf of Mexico: From Magnificent Resource to Industrial Sacrifice Zone.”
6. Kuntsler, James Howard. 2006. “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes in the Twenty-first Century.” New York: Grove Press. P. 31.
7. Colten, Craig. 2005. “Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. P. 127.
8. Campanella, Richard. 2002. “Time and Place in New Orleans: Past Geographies in the Present Day.” Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing. P. 78.
9. Grunwald, Michael. 14 September 2005. “Canal May have Worsened City’s Flooding: Disputed Project was a ‘Funnel’ for Surge, Some Say.” Washington Post.
10. See Tidwell, Mike. 2007. “The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities.” Free Press.
11. Perrow, Charles. 2007. “The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. P. 23.
12. Lerner, Steve. 2005. “Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Pp. 43-53.
13. Lerner, p. 119-121.
14. Bullard, Robert. 2000. “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality.” Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Pp. 10; 32.
15. Bullard, p. 97.
16. Anderson, Curt and Thomas Watkins. 1 May 2010. “Lawyers Flock to Gulf Coast for Oil Spill Lawsuits.” Associated Press.
17. Erikson, Kai. 1976. “Everything In Its Path: Destruction of Community In The Buffalo Creek Flood.” New York: Simon and Schuster.
18. Picou, J. Steven, Brent K. Marshall, and Duane A. Gill. 2004. “Disaster, Litigation, and the Corrosive Community.” Social Forces 82(4): 1497-1526.
19. Brown, Lester R. 2008. “Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing To Save Civilization.” New York: W.W. Norton. P. 7.
20. Grissett, Shelia. 30 May 2009. “New Orleans Region’s Levee System Making Strides.” New Orleans Times-Picayune.
21. CBC News. 3 May 2010. “Low Risk for Newfoundland Oil Disaster: Williams.”
22. France-Presse, Agence. 29 April 2010. “Louisiana Shrimpers File Lawsuit Over U.S. Oil Spill.”
23. Brubaker Calkins, Laurel and Margaret Cronin Fisk. 1 May 2010. “BP, Transocean Lawsuits Surge as Oil Spill Spreads in Gulf.” Bloomberg Businessweek.
24. Tankersley, Jim and Richard Simon. 31 March 2010. “Obama’s Offshore Drilling Plan Seen as Political Olive Branch.” Los Angeles Times.
25. Clarke, Lee. 2005. “Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
26. Perrow, p. 40.