From the shores of Louisiana — A conversation with Paul Templet

Baton Rouge, Louisiana – Standing in the heart of the bucolic, green LSU campus, where Paul Templet taught environmental science for more than twenty years, it’s hard to imagine that the worst ecologic disaster perhaps ever is ongoing just a couple hours away. It’s from this landmark that he took a leave of absence in the 1980s to run, for four years, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, during the reign of “the last good governor we had” (Buddy Roemer), he remembers.

He is pointed in his accusations that those years may have been the last time that real rules and regulations were forced on the oil industry. “Today they write most of them,” he says.

Retired from the university but still living in the town in which he was born and consulting on environmental and coastal concerns, Templet has nearly used up any optimism he might have once had regarding his state and environmental controls. He organized the first Earth Day event near where we are talking, forty years ago.

“Certainly I’ve lost hope that the Louisiana state government will ever change. The oil companies run this state, without question. They control most of the agencies, own most of the legislators and run the governor’s office.” His only hope is that the Deepwater spill will affect change inside the federal government agencies that have a hand in overseeing oil production and environmental protection in the Gulf. “When you’ve got such loose oversight by the Mineral Management Service and the Department of Interior, combined with endemic corruption in the state, I guess none of us are surprised by the spill.”

Corruption and Louisiana are like oil and oil. Templet suggests that the federal government has been looking the other direction for a number of years too. “Thanks largely to the Bush-Cheney administration. Remember those secret meetings Cheney had early in the administration with oil company executives that he’d never release information about? It was during those meetings where things were decided that would help save the oil industry money. Including not requiring things like backup spill preventers.”

His biggest concerns about the spill are that while it may now seem like the worst ever, it may not be the last and that it won’t affect real change.

“The oil industry is massive in this state. I fought them for years when I was head of the DEQ and we won some battles on what they could dump and where, even radioactive waste they were just dumping into pits in the ground and covering up. But they hate rules and regulations and have ways of getting back at you.” When he returned to his professorship – which, knowing that in his job as chief environmentalists he’d make some powerful enemies, he made university officials guarantee would be waiting for him – his punishment was a pay cut.

While he loves his home state and has no plans of leaving (though he does keep an apartment in Taos) he’s saddened when he looks around at the state of his home state. “We have the biggest gas and oil industry in the lower 48 yet Louisiana ranks among the lowest in most categories. Our roads are awful, so are our schools. Our poverty level is 2nd only to Mississippi.

“The reality is we don’t get much tax money out of the oil industry anymore and most of the drilling is more than three miles offshore, thus in federal waters, so any royalties go to the fed. And the subsidies the state gives the oil industry guarantees we get very little in return for all that they take.”

He remembers from his teaching days that he and his colleagues agreed that it took at least 20 years to see true change. “Maybe in the next twenty years we’ll see a tightening up of regulations on the oil industry. But the thing we have to do is move away from oil and gas because even if we continue to find it, and burn it, we’re just making climate change worse.”

Though it’s hard to believe as oil continues to rush out of the wellhead a mile below sea level at a still-unknown rate, rising sea levels may be an even bigger concern for southern Louisiana than future oil spills. Once the coast line is erased, which many think will happen in the next thirty to forty years, pollution will mean something completely different.

“I saw a map yesterday that showed by 2050 that New Orleans would be gone (meaning about thirty miles of marsh and wetlands would be flooded),” says Templet. This in a state that loses a football field of wetlands every day due to erosion, or about 25 square miles a year.

“I’ve also heard that you can’t get a loan to build a house south of Houma because the banks don’t believe that in the thirty years it will take you to pay off your loan that the house will still be above water.”