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Gulf Residents Scared Oil Industry Will Leave: Will We Ever Break Our Abusive Relationship With Oil?

Leaving our abusive relationship with oil and gas will cause creative destruction on a scale we have never experienced.

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"I know people from the bayous who, it's their livelihood, it's what they've always done is work offshore on a drilling rig," she told me. "Companies are going to leave. As much as I don't like their byproducts and how they dispose of them, I would hate to see drilling be stopped in the Gulf because of families losing their jobs just like the shrimpers are."

Friloux's son, Danny Jr., could be one of them. A burly guy with a "Native Warrior" tattoo inked on his left forearm, Danny works on offshore production platforms, where he helps manage the gas lift lines that keep the oil coming up through the wells. "We've always worked side by side with the oil and gas," his mom said. "We all know we need the oil and gas industry."

Listening to the Blanchards and the Frilouxs one comes to understand how seemingly intractable our reliance on fossil fuels is. Louisiana shows what it means to be hooked: For here we are, stained and soiled and wrecked by the oil and gas industry, and still we can't break away. The situation should be familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with tobacco, alcohol, drugs -- or an abusive relationship. Louisianans are scared of the consequences if they don't quit their decades-long affair with the oil and gas. They are even more afraid of what it will feel like if they do.

Louisiana's predicament is the plight of the entire United States, just writ large. This damned if you do, damned if you don't situation represents a serious challenge to progressives' ambitions to build a green economy. The state's utter reliance on the oil and gas industry reveals that the transition to a clean energy economy will be far more difficult than many of us know.

At this point, nifty Van Jones sound bites about the green economy (and I've coined some myself) aren't enough. Although essential, vision is insufficient. Because we can all sort of imagine what a green economy would look like; we've seen enough of the windmill porn by now. In the oily wake of the gulf disaster we have to start providing people with real, workable (and work-centered) alternatives to the fossil fuel economy. And that will take far more money, far more time, and far more economic and community dislocation than most people understand.

To leave our abusive relationship with oil and gas, tens of thousands of people will need job retraining. Not just in the extraction industries, but also in the automobile manufacturing, transportation, shipping and utility sectors. Companies will have to swallow tens of billions of dollars in stranded costs as valuable capital such as drilling platforms and 18-wheelers are abandoned in favor of wind turbine factories and diesel-electric hybrid freight trains. Entire regions (Detroit, Louisiana, Texas) will need to reinvent their economies while most cities will have to redraw their boundaries. Some places -- the exurbs of Phoenix, the outskirts of Vegas -- will simply have to be abandoned. It will be creative destruction on a scale we have never experienced.

Make no mistake: This will be a painful breakup. It will also be an expensive one; so costly, in fact, that I can't see any entity except the federal government being able to cover the price tag. And unless political "leaders" in Washington commit to the kind of World War II-style "emergency mobilization" that Bill McKibben urges, the transition will also take time. Time, unfortunately, that we don't have.

"If we keep saying 'in the meantime' and 'in the meanwhile,' we'll never get there," Dan Howells, the deputy campaigns director for Greenpeace, said to me during a trip onto Barataria Bay to check out the oil on the water. "We'll never get off this stuff."