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Big Oil’s influence in the Gulf

Sharks and rays swim peacefully around an oil rig. It’s a scene right out of — well, right out of a New Orleans aquarium. The Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas opened in 1990 and was paid for by a consortium of the companies that use or benefit from real oil rigs like the ones not far offshore.

Oliver Houck, who teaches environmental law at Tulane University, calls it a happy illusion, “an image of fish and oil rigs living in harmony together, which is part of the Louisiana myth of oil and gas development in the coastal zone.”

The professor is a longtime New Orleans resident who’s been keeping his eye on the Louisiana coastline — and the industries that work it — for decades.

“About 120 years ago, oil was discovered in Louisiana. It changed everything,” Houck said. “This state became, in effect, the PR department for the oil and gas industry. And it’s remained that ever since. The governors would say it in their campaigns, legislators would say it. The deal was simple. They paid the bills, and we’d leave ’em alone.”

Energy has a big impact on the local economy. According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, in 2009 it contributed more than $1.1 billion to the state treasury in taxes, royalties and fees.

That same year, says, BP spent $16 million lobbying Capitol Hill. And in the last election cycle, individuals and PACs affiliated with BP gave more campaign dollars to Louisiana Democratic senator Mary Landrieu than to any other Congressperson.

Landrieu was recently quoted in the Baton Rouge newspaper, The Advocate, calling for continued drilling in the Gulf. “When a plane falls out of the sky, you don’t ground every airplane,” she said.

Gulf drilling has long boosted the local economy. But the explosion poses tough questions.

Houck says the oil spill would be a criminal act, “only if it were a willful and wanton sense of recklessness. No one could make a charge that BP intended this.”

But when asked if it was grossly negligent Houck responded, “That’s a good question. If it was, then it could be criminally negligent, yes.”

That could be very hard to prove. In countries like Brazil and Norway, spills like the one here might have been contained by remote controlled shutoffs required by law. But those are not required in the United States.

Need to Know asked BP for an interview, but the company declined by e-mail saying, “Our focus is on controlling the source of oil and mitigating impact of the spill offshore and onshore. We’re not interested in talking about the past or speculating on the cause of this accident which hasn’t been investigated.”

Whatever the investigators find, BP is subject to a law that was enacted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. It’s called the Oil Pollution Act, or OPA.

Houck says, after OPA the law became much clearer. “The operator, was fully responsible for all response costs, all cleanup costs, without question. And that’s one of the reasons BP has been so quick in saying, ‘Oh, well, we’ll pay.’ Of course they will. They have to.”

The Oil Pollution Act also means BP must pay for the long-term costs of restoring the environment, plus compensate the people whose livelihoods are at stake.

We found shrimper Darrel Moreau admiring the catch from his last day at sea.

Moreau said it’s some of the best you’ll get to eat. But he worried it might be over.

Who knows how long these boats could stay docked. But the captains, crews and other residents who make their living from the sea need to find some way to make money.

And right now for many there’s only one way — go to work for BP. The company needs workers — and boats — to clean up the oil spill.

Before they head back to the Gulf, though, a group of captains and crew gathered inside an old dance hall and bingo parlor in Chauvin, La., to sit through a prolonged PowerPoint presentation and learn how to clean up BP’s mess.

A presenter stood in front of a makeshift projector as fishermen looked on. “BP’s priorities, as you know, are safety,” he said.

Clean-up jobs don’t appeal to everyone. Darrel Moreau, for instance, said he can make five to six hundred dollars a night by himself on his boat. “Why am I going to work for $10 an hour cleaning oil?” he asked.

The answer is that right now that may be the only way to get back on the water.

Meanwhile, even before the massive oil slick made landfall on the Gulf Coast, lawyers were already hitting the beaches to sign up fishermen and small business owners fearful of losing their livelihoods.

There are already more than 70 pending lawsuits against BP and its partners.

One attorney tried to convince a prospective client of the oil company’s responsibility. “It was due to their negligence that they destroyed the fishes,” the lawyer said. “It’s not your fault. It’s their fault. So, they owe you to try and get you fixed.”

Until the Gulf is clear, the denizens of that aquarium in New Orleans could be the only marine life Louisiana residents see up close for a while.

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