Bowermaster’s Adventures: Lifiting the drilling moratorium

Less than 180 days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank and less than 60 days after BP finally sealed the well that leaked 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration lifted its own moratorium on deepwater drilling.

While Gulf State oil workers, especially in Louisiana, are relieved, hoping that new permits will be approved by year’s end and jobs that have been on hold can continue, others are concerned the early end of the moratorium (days before it was planned, on November 30) may be rushed.

Five reasons we may regret the early lifting:

  • New rules and regulations required by oil industry operators may not be sufficiently understood, by either government or industry. New standards require that operators must have blowout preventers inspected and design approved by an independent third party. In direct response to the BP accident, new deepwater rigs must come with reports illustrating exactly how they could prevent or reduce a blowout at the wellhead. And they must have all casing designs and cementing operations certified by an outside engineer. All of that sounds good on paper, but is the new government agency set up to inspect new permits ready?
  • Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council – comprised of scientists and lawyers – worry that not enough is known about what exactly caused the BP explosion to prevent a similar accident from happening again. Despite the new standards for permitting “there is no insurance that future drilling will be done responsibly,” says the NRDC’s executive director Peter Lehner. Cutting corners will remain a concern in the very-for-profit oil industry.


  • Lifting the moratorium in the Gulf gives fuel to those hoping for a similar relief off the coast of Alaska. Since the BP accident all drilling in the Beaufort Sea has been banned; Alaska Governor Sean Parnell immediately picked up the argument that if it’s okay to drill below 5,000 feet in the Gulf it should be a-ok to drill in shallow waters in his state’s waters. For now the Department of Interior is proceeding cautiously regarding oil drilling off the North Slope due to to concerns that any spill could decimate a still-mostly pristine environment.
  • With the moratorium lifted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will have plenty of time on his hands; he’s made lifting the ban his fulltime job since early summer. Never friendly to environmental concerns, Jindal may refocus on the misplaced building of offshore berms (a boon to buddies in the construction business?). He is also pushing for even more shallow water permits – since June only 12 have been permitted off Louisiana; pre-spill that many were okayed every month. But competition for ugliest political maneuvering in the state is stiff: Senator Mary Landrieu continues to single-handedly block the appointment of a new White House budget director until she’s satisfied the moratorium is “sufficiently” lifted.
  • The biggest reason to worry about more deepwater drilling is because inevitably leaks and spills will continue to occur. And not necessarily because of industrial malfeasance or corners being cut, just statistically. As long as we continue to drill one, two and three miles below the ocean’s surface – an always risky, messy undertaking whether on land or sea – there will be accidents, small and, one day again, big. The best protection against another BP-like accident? Less dependence on crude.

[Photos by P.J. Hahn]

From the shores of Louisiana: Inside the Atchafalaya water basin

Dean Wilson guns the outboard engine on his snub-nosed, 17-foot aluminum bateaux through thick water hyacinth. We are in the heart of the 1.4 million acre Atchafalaya water basin which is both his backyard and his preserve – he is its formal “keeper” – when I ask if he has ever in 20 years gotten lost in this maze of narrow channels and floating forests:

“Not lost, but one time I did have my boat break down. And I was in a place that only one man alive could find me. Luckily my cell phone worked and he was just leaving the house. Otherwise, I always know where I am.” Good thing, since there’s no way we could walk out of this morass of thigh-deep water.

We spend the morning racing at full-speed up the man-made canals – dug by oil companies to give them access to the abundance of natural gas that lies beneath – his one-year-old puppy Shanka standing on the side of the boat, or becalmed in the heart of an old-growth Cyprus forest admiring the hundreds-year-old trees and wildlife that uses them for homes. Barn owls hoot in the near-distance. The gentle swoosh of wings — herons, egrets and ibis — break the calm air. The occasional four-foot alligator slides off a downed tree or mud bank. And fish, mullets, leap out of the brown-but-clear water.

“Why do they jump?” I ask Dean.

“I’m not sure,” he answers, in an accent that is part Cajun, part native Spanish. “Because they are happy?”

%Gallery-95432%Dean came to live on the edge of the swamp 20 years ago. “I wanted to go live in the Amazon, and in preparation looked for a similar place to acclimatize, so I moved here. And I never left, never made it to Brazil.” Part Spanish (his mother), part Ohioan (his father), he fit perfectly into the patchwork populace of South Louisiana. Initially he lived on the banks of the swamp, first in a tent, then a trailer, living off what he could catch by hand, hook, arrow or spear, including fish, raccoon, mink, otter, duck. Moving into a small house surrounded by swamp he made his living as a commercial fisherman and hunter for 16 years before his passion – protecting the swamp, particularly its Cyprus forests – became his livelihood. For the last five years he’s been the official Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, associated with the 200 water watchdogs operating under the umbrella of the Waterkeepers Alliance.

Other than the oil and gas companies that covet any access they can get to the oil and gas rich swamp land, his biggest enemy were clear-cutters making their way into the swamp to take the protected, hundreds-year-old Cyprus trees to turn into garden mulch. Several years of investigation, which included sneaking around the swamps in camouflage, sneaking into lumber yards and lots of aerial photography, helped him force the hand of the big box stores – specifically Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, which were selling the illegally-gotten mulch – into stopping. Today taking trees from the swamps in Louisiana is limited to a small corner on the eastern edge, away from the Atchafalaya. His efforts are not always lauded; he’s been followed, shot at, had a dog poisoned.

“I still follow my share of trucks loaded with trees,” he admits, “so occasionally it still happens. But it’s much better than it was.”

Why protect a place most people consider God-forsaken, a region believed (wrongly!) to be home to only melon-sized mosquitoes and poisonous snakes? “Actually, I believe this is where God resides, in the heart of the swamp,” he says.

From the shores of Louisiana: through the eyes of an environmental chemist

New Iberia, Louisiana — Traveling around southern Louisiana with Wilma Subra can be both enlightening and depressing. A chemist by training and environmental activist by choice, on every corner, at every railroad crossing, each empty lot and even in the air she sees – rightfully! – either a toxic wasteland or one on the verge. Better than anyone in the state she understands the long-term effects of putting chemicals into air and water.

During the past five-plus weeks her limits as both environmentalist and human have been tested on a variety of fronts. She’s appeared before dozens of community groups trying to explain the health risks of the spill, been interviewed by journalists from around the world, participated in high-level talks with government officials, all with the goal of trying to help them understand just how bad the ongoing spill is for both the environment and human health.

When I find her at home on a Sunday she is clearly happy to see an old friend, but exhausted from more than 35 long days and sleepless nights. Sixty-six years old, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant a decade ago for her work on community environmental fights.

“You never get used to this level of emergency. When you come home at night you can’t separate the science from the social impact on these communities.

“But you take it day to day. You get up in the morning and start again, no matter how many hours of sleep you get. Because so much of what I can do helps those communities … so I need to be there when they need me. And right now they desperately need me.”

When the Deepwater first exploded she was as caught by surprise as most in Louisiana. “We always suspected something like this could happen, but assumed there would be enough preventive measures that it wouldn’t turn into something this major . We could never have predicted something this huge.

%Gallery-95432%”When the rig sank, on Earth Day, it quickly became clear the spill was going to wreak havoc all along the coast. How bad is it? It’s just unbelievably bad. Decisions are being made now – the burning of oil off the surface, the spreading of chemical dispersements – that will have huge, long-term impacts. And not just on the marine environment.

According to Wilma a combination of heavy winds and high seas whip the floating oil into an aerosol of hydrocarbons, which when blown ashore are making people as far inland as New Orleans very sick, complaining of headaches, vomiting, rashes and burning eyes.

Her immediate concern post-spill was the health of the fishermen being hired to help with the clean up. “At first BP tried to get them to sign an agreement which basically took away all their rights to protection of human health, their rights to sue, their rights to get damages. They were basically saying ‘If you are going to apply for damages then you can’t apply for this job.’ So we took them to court and got all of those clauses thrown out. The following day we took them to court again because they weren’t providing the fishermen with protective gear. We’d taken it upon ourselves to give the fishermen respirators with replaceable, organic cartridges, goggles, gloves and rubber sleeves protectors because when you pick up a boom covered with oil you get it on your skin. But we wanted BP to provide it to all their workers out there.

“We don’t want the fishers, glad to get the job, to go out there and get poisoned and for the rest of their lives have human health issues because they desperately needed this job to take the place of the fishing jobs they lost because of the spill.” She likens it to the workers who helped clean up after the World Trade Center collapsed and later got sick from the toxins in the air.

I ask who she blames for the mess. “You have to start by looking at who’s in charge. And apparently BP is in charge. The MMS, EPA, Department of Interior are all saying ‘We are at the command center, we’re making decisions,’ but the truth is if BP wants to try something or not try something no one can tell them no. BP is running the show and the people along the coast are the ones suffering. Right now the oil industry is clearly winning, not the communities.

“You understand, this is the end of the fishing communities in south Louisiana, for many, many decades to come.”