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How BP, Big Oil and the Feds Screw Louisiana to Bring You Cheap Gas

The waters off Louisiana produce more oil than anywhere else in the nation. So why is it the second poorest state?

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Then there's the music. Infused with the rhythms of West Africa combined with the instruments of Europe, New Orleans music, be it jazz, rock, blues or pop, has a sound all its own.

When I returned to New Orleans in 2006 on the one-year anniversary of Katrina, Cyril Neville, the virtuoso percussionist of the Neville Brothers, explained it to me like this: the rest of America, he said, "they don't see us as part of the same country." In fact, he posited, New Orleans is functionally "the northernmost port of the Caribbean." Indeed, New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast share more culturally with the nations of the Caribbean than, say, with the states of New England or the Midwest, or even a southern state like Virginia.

Louisiana once had a shot at claiming a share of oil revenues from the Gulf of Mexico, in a compromise that House Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Tex., tried to broker in 1949. But Leander Perez, the local Democratic Party boss of Louisiana's Placquemines and St. Bernard Parishes (and a segregationist), would have none of it, seeing how his representation of the compromise as a grab by the federal government played to his personal and political fortunes. In alliance with a similarly minded Texas attorney general, Perez succeeded in scuttling the deal, leaving Louisiana with nothing.

I recount all this in an effort to work out why a region so loaded with riches is deprived of its share in them. It's hard to imagine that happening off the northeast U.S. coast; there the oil barons and the federal government would never get away such a rape of entire cultures and their natural legacy.

But more than any other port in America, New Orleans exemplified the commodification of people and nature's bounty that was the engine of the colonial system. There, the riches of the Caribbean -- rum and sugar -- were traded alongside those of the American South -- cotton, rice and tobacco.

And there the nation's largest slave market thrived, selling people fresh off the ships from Africa, or just off the plantation.

The truth is, the everyday, regular people of Louisiana are used to being treated like crap. African Americans and American Indians there always faced great peril; the white Cajuns arrived as refugees from Canada in the 1760s, and their distinctive culture and language (and their dedicated preservation of it) still sometimes renders them suspect in the minds of non-Cajun whites. (It's bad enough that they insist on speaking French, but it's not even regular French.)

Yet Louisiana is fantastically American. Much of the music that screams "America" to the rest of the world was born thereabouts: jazz, blues and rock ‘n' roll. As an economic engine for the place the United States occupies in the world's economy, the Port of New Orleans played an historic role. And Louisiana today supplies a mighty portion of the oil and gas that fuels America.

On the eve of President Obama's first visit to the Gulf Coast last week to examine the destruction wrought by BP's deep-water well explosion, the editorial board of the New Orleans Times-Picayune pleaded its state's case, arguing, "We can't wait till 2017 for the resources we need to save our imperiled coast. We and other oil-producing coastal states must start getting the 37.5 percent share of oil and gas royalties from new drilling in the Gulf now. Not seven years in the future. Not when it's too late and there's nothing left to save." They continued:

Twice in the past five years, Louisiana has been knocked to its knees by disasters rooted in the quest for oil. Our bill has come due.