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Patchwork Nation: Views From Baton Rouge on the Oil Leak

Of all the startling numbers out of the Gulf oil spill story, the most interesting one may be this: zero. That is the number of calls out of the Louisiana State legislature for any freeze on drilling in the Gulf.

The spill is big news in the state – huge news actually – but it doesn’t feel the same everywhere, and that is especially true in the capital of Baton Rouge, some 100 miles from the affected coast.

Up in the parish of East Baton Rouge, there is anger at oil giant BP, there is anger at the inability to shut down the well, there is anger at the federal government. But challenging the petrochemical industry as a whole, that’s a different matter. Or it has been up to now.

Patchwork Nation has visited the Baton Rouge multiple times. East Baton Rouge, with its large racial divides, represents a Minority Central community in the Patchwork scheme.

But it is impossible to visit there and not be hit profound power of the oil industry. There are some 65 petrochemical facilities in the area, including the 150-acre ExxonMobil facility in the city of Baton Rouge itself. And the day-to-day operations of those facilities is more critical to the region than the spill.

Life Goes On

That’s not to say the millions of gallons of crude leaking into the ocean is being ignored in Baton Rouge. The coastal areas have special meaning in the state.

“The oil spill is like a dark cloud over everyone’s head,” Pat Felder, a long-time resident, writes in an e-mail. “Our entire way of life is built around the Louisiana coast, seafood and wildlife. It is why we love it here. We have seen a reduction in the amount of some seafood, mostly oysters. … If they do not cap it very soon, Katrina will seem like nothing compared to the permanent, or at least decades-lasting, devastation that our coast will suffer.”

Kirby Goidel, who teaches at Louisiana State University, says that in Baton Rouge there’s a heavy worry about the future. “While the coast is feeling the immediate impact, everyone (Baton Rouge and coastal communities) is concerned about the long-term consequences the disaster and especially about the effects on the seafood industry. This is a disaster of unknown scope and size and the uncertainty has people concerned about the future,” he writes in an e-mail.

But ultimately those sentiments, while significant, are about more esoteric concerns – problems in the future or problems in the fishing industry down on the coast or problems in the state’s self-image where the bayou holds a certain mythology.

The reality of Louisiana, however, is better understood looking at those petrochemical facilities around Baton Rouge. Those facilities statewide generate 17 billion gallons of gasoline annually and billions in revenue. They are key to keeping the state functioning.

The Industry That Makes the State Run

As the Obama administration has announced a desire to slow offshore oil production, including a moratorium on deepwater drilling, the strongest complaints have come from Louisiana.

Sen. David Vitter on Thursday called for an end to the moratorium. “Our workforce and economy have been significantly impacted from the oil spill, but Obama’s offshore moratorium could threaten potential revenue for Louisiana and be even more devastating,” he said in a statement.

And even those affected more directly by the spill don’t want drilling to stop.

Reed Henderson, a state legislator who represents St. Bernard Parish, an area that has seen oil wash into its marshlands, says he understands that drilling can’t stop. But he says next session he will introduce legislation to allow the state to collect royalties from companies that drill off of Louisiana’s coast. That qualifies as something of a major development.

A Relationship Redefined

Henderson has been thinking about collecting royalties for a long time, long before the spill, and he’s heard the arguments against it: companies will go elsewhere, taxes are bad. And Henderson, while he sympathizes with those thoughts, says the bigger issue is justice for Louisiana.

“If we’re going to be the producer of energy in the country, we’re going to get compensated,” Henderson told us. “You can’t drill anywhere else in the country. In California they say ‘not near our white beaches.’ In Florida they say, ‘not near our white beaches.’ Well, marshes are a lot harder to clean than beaches.”

So why hasn’t a proposal like Henderson’s come out of Louisiana before now? Beyond federal interstate commerce issues (which Henderson thinks he can satisfy) there is trying to get a tax of the oil industry through the state legislature. No one likes taxes. And Henderson acknowledges, that’s probably doubly true of taxes aimed at the state’s biggest industry — particularly when one gets farther from the coast.

“Will it be hard to pass through the state legislature? Sure it will be. But the time is right,” he says.

Time will tell if he is correct. And when the leak eventually stops in the Gulf there will be two big questions in for the state: Did the oil spill redefine the relationship between Louisiana and the petrochemical industry – at least enough to interest the legislature in taxing it more heavily? And will there be a coastal/inland divide on how people feel about an idea like that?

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