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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.

Back in the early aughts, me and Mike Brune (now the head of the Sierra Club) and Jen Krill (today the executive director of the group Earthworks) launched a national grassroots campaign to push U.S. auto companies to move away from oil. I was working then at Global Exchange, Brune and Krill were at Rainforest Action Network, and we hoped that by combining the forces of our two organizations we could jumpstart a new conversation about how our reliance on fossil fuels jeopardized not only the environment but also human rights and national security. The centerpiece of our campaign was a call to "break America's oil addiction."

At the time, the message seemed ambitious. Sure, most progressives and self-styled environmentalists understood very well the depth of our fossil fuel problem. But when it came to more mainstream audiences, comparing our oil usage to drug abuse was pretty audacious. I remember that when we held rallies at auto shows or protests at car dealerships, passersby showed discomfort with the addiction metaphor. It was like we had called out a dirty family secret hiding in plain sight. Few people argued against the comparison, but no one really wanted to admit it, either.

So it felt like something of a victory when oilman George W. Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, declared: "Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil." Four years later, the notion that we are hooked on oil has become conventional wisdom. When President Obama bemoaned our "addiction to fossil fuels" during his wan Oval Office speech last week, the comment was received as nothing more than a patently obvious statement.

I'm pleased that we have as a nation finally admitted our addiction problem: After all, recognition is the first sign of recovery. But as the BP oil disaster enters its second month, it seems to me that the addiction metaphor has become inadequate. It would be more accurate to say that we're in an abusive relationship and unable to leave our abuser. The plight of the people in Louisiana proves the point. Louisianans have been punched in the face by the hand that feeds them, and yet their biggest worry is that the oil and gas industry is going to walk out the door and leave them.

"It's bad what's happening, but we still need the oil to survive," Tony Lirette, an owner of Bayou Hardware just north of Dulac, LA told me when I was in the state earlier this month. Lirette's store caters mainly to the commercial fishermen in the area, and he's been feeling a pinch from the fishing closures. But he says a shutdown of offshore drilling would only make things worse. "We have to have the oil companies -- you'd see too many people go on unemployment. A lot of my customers work in the oil fields."

"Look, we need it, just like you need the sunrise, OK," Matt Lepitich, an oysterman in Empire, LA said to me. Lepitich has taken a much bigger hit than Lirette. Some of his oyster beds have already been killed by the spill, yet he too, is afraid of what would happen if the oil and gas industry were to shut down. "With that moratorium he [Obama] added more problems to the equation. Don't get me wrong, you need to check those rigs out, check 'em out good for a month or two. But if those rigs leave, they aren't comin' back. Their shareholders at one point are going to pull the plug and say, 'That's it, get 'em outta there.'"