Sheila McNulty Louisiana wants clean waters, but no moratorium to ensure them

Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, has been among the most vocal in calling for an end to the oil leak in the Gulf and its containment to protect the state’s vulnerable wetlands. It is a rallying cry expected of him, given Louisiana’s fragile ecosystem.

The wetlands make up a very small percentage of the total land found in the country, and yet southern Louisiana contains about 40 per cent of these wetlands across the country. They are an important breeding ground for aquatic life, as well as a source of flood control, water purification and a buffer from storms. Yet they have been disappearing at an alarming rate of 25 square miles of wetlands each year, or what residents like to quote - a football field sized area every 30 minutes. As the oil began washing into the marshlands, Jindal made a point in May to emphasise their importance in a statement:

The oil is no longer just a projection or miles from our shore. The oil is here. It is on our shores and in our marsh. To put this in perspective, our state has already lost 2,300 square miles of coastal lands since the 1930s.  This is like losing the entire state of Rhode Island or Delaware. This is the same area that is home to one of our nation’s most productive estuaries. We have been working aggressively to reverse this trend of coastal land and wetlands loss. …Our state was on track to have the lowest rate of land loss in 80 years as a result of our efforts and investments in our coast.  Our shrimpers were rebounding, our oyster fishermen were recovering and our coastal communities were rebuilding. This spill fundamentally threatens Louisiana’s way of life.

One would think, then, that Jindal would support the Obama Administration’s efforts to prevent another spill by imposing a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf to ensure there are enough safety precautions being taken by the industry and regulators. But Jindal is conflicted. The oil industry is a major source of revenue for Louisiana. An economic impact study conducted by Dr Loren Scott shows that the total direct and indirect impact of the industry on the state is approximately $65bn, according to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. So now Jindal is making the case for a quick end to the moratorium, saying it will have what he calls a devastating impact on Louisiana’s economy. From his latest statement:

Our bottom line is that we absolutely want drilling to be done safely, but it shouldn’t take months of federal government committees and meetings. We need effective oversight of this industry. Just because the federal government can’t do their jobs doesn’t mean thousands of Louisiana should lose their jobs. We should not have to choose between our coast and the safe production of energy. That is a false choice for Louisiana and our people.

It is a message he says he has conveyed to President Barack Obama:

When I met with President Obama last Friday, I expressed my very serious concerns about his deepwater drilling moratorium and the harmful effects it is having on our economy. Just this morning, Senator Mary Landrieu and I both told the White House again that this moratorium absolutely must not go on for six months. Reviews must be done quickly and that it is clear that we need to do two things immediately.

The governor is absolutely right in wanting a quick review. But if he wants to protect Louisiana’s marshes from further spills, it also is crucial that the process not be rushed. To be sure, the governor is in a difficult position. The marshlands cannot sustain further oil spills. But the state, too, cannot afford to lose its oil industry. There will certainly be some short-term loss of income to the state by the moratorium. And job losses from businesses such as the caterers and transport companies that service the rigs now suspended from new drilling.

But the state may well have to endure those to ensure the safety of its marshlands. For even though the state fears too long a moratorium will force operators to leave the Gulf for deepwaters elsewhere to exploit, the reality is that the Gulf is a key area of focus for the world’s biggest oil companies. And they will be back once the moratorium has been lifted, regardless of what new safety measures they must take to get out there. It does seem better for Louisiana to ensure they come back with the necessary safeguards than too soon, subjecting the wetlands to the potential of another environmental disaster.