Nature, capital, and a certain number of dead birds.
The Deepwater Horizon spill was a new kind of disaster—continuous, gradual, seemingly endless, lacking any sense of location or scale. It was as abstract as the hole had been to the men who were drilling it, interacting with the bottom through switches, dials, and joysticks. Information on the crisis passed through the same filters—video, numbers, experts, Houston—that had brought it about in the first place. Flow estimates began at 1,000 barrels a day and rose to 5,000, then 25,000, then 59,000, then 53,000. The flow continued for eighty-seven days. Like death, the oil was out there, a pool of unknowns silently advancing, a fuzz of brown pixels that became tangible only at those points where it surfaced. It would stay confined to the screen, up until the moment when the ocean turned black and the room burst into flame.
A crop of disaster-shamans rose up to palliate the helplessness. The most prominent was Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish. We met in July while waiting at small airfield for a Coast Guard plane to carry us out for a look at the gushing “source.” Nungesser, whose body is shaped like a ringed planet, has the uncanny ability to project a field of emergency wherever he goes. Taking my notebook, he sketched out his own plan, how a fleet of barges could encircle the spreading oil at the source and keep it from ever reaching land. Why, he asked, wasn’t the government’s response taking full advantage of this kind of local know-how? “People ask me if this is going to be Obama’s Katrina,” he said. “This is going to be worse than Katrina for him.”
Before winning election to parish president, Nungesser made a fortune converting shipping containers into living quarters for offshore workers. Like most in the Louisiana oilfield, he saw this work as part of the commonweal, the furnishing of a nation with all modern conveniences. The oilmen had accomplished this with first with landbound scaffolds poking holes into leased farmland, then by floating these scaffolds across the swamp on barges, and then, as demand rose, with gargantuan rigs drilling holes into the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where they were tended to by helicopters, 300-foot supply ships, and robotic submarines. This evolution had made Morgan City, Louisiana, America’s last great oil boomtown, a heritage going back to 1947, when Kerr-McGee drilled the first producing well beyond of sight of land. The early deals were piecemeal, with speculators haggling for rights over farmers’ kitchen tables. Now that their steel straws could probe thousands of feet beneath the ocean floor, the men dealt with the federal government. Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron got access to commonly held seafloors. Treasury got $13 billion in annual rents. Employees of the now-defunct Mineral Management Service received lavish meals, golf outings, and other illicit gratuities. Shareholders enjoyed gross profit margins of around twenty percent. Thousands of oilmen, through some magic combination of shrewdness, perseverance and luck, became rich. Millions got hard work at market wages. The rest of us paid market prices for all modern conveniences.
Swapping access to the continental shelf for cheap energy—the deal was so vast, so deeply rooted in the infrastructure of pipelines and refineries, that it appeared, as one lit a room with a switch or watched the pump’s inky numbers flicker, as natural as photosynthesis, the exchange of one abstraction for another. Even the fish had come to see petroleum extraction as a part of nature, happily cooperating with a government plan to turn decommissioned offshore drilling platforms into artificial reefs. The arrangement continued without interruption until 2010, when BP rushed a cement job on Mississippi Canyon Block 252 and five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Interior announced a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, declaring that it “poses an unacceptable threat of serious and irreparable harm or damage to wildlife and the marine, coastal and human environment.”
Among the other shamans I met in Louisiana was Bob Bea, a professor of engineering, visiting New Orleans for Katrina-related business as a plaintiff’s witness. Between court sessions Bob took meetings arranged by Jimmy, a local political fixer who likes to broaden his network by introducing himself to the people at the next table. Over dinner at Galatoire’s, I watched Bob and Jimmy solicit funds from Lynell, an enormous woman draped in jewels. She said that she had made a fortune as a petroleum landwoman, a broker of oil lease deals when in fact, she had won a $27 million Lotto Texas jackpot. Bob and Jimmy wanted some of Lynell’s money for their oil spill committee. Lynell wanted Jimmy to get her a meeting with the governor. I wanted Bob to somehow be the hero of the oil spill, the man whose sense of proportion and technical acumen would make things right. Nobody wound up getting anything, except for Jimmy, who left the restaurant with a loaner sports jackets resting on his shoulders.
For the next few days we drove around Louisiana in Lynell’s Lexus, following Jimmy’s itinerary of meetings with the presidents of parishes and levee districts. Lynell handed out copies of a federal lawsuit she had filed against BP in her capacity as a petroleum landwoman and citizen of the United States. Her suit claimed that cracks around the gushing Macondo well could open a hole in the earth the size of a swimming pool, spreading oil across the Caribbean and up the Atlantic seaboard. This hole would be impossible to close. It could cause seismic disturbances and expose the earth’s molten core, potentially giving birth to a deadly volcano.
As relief, Lynell asked the court to order BP off the lease immediately so the federal government could assume full control of the well. “It is a sad day in the history of this country,” she wrote, “when a private citizen must bring an action in order to make the government responsible to its citizens for a catastrophic disaster.”
About this, Lynell was right. Like the financial crisis, the government lacked sufficient expertise to repair the faulty systems that caused the oil spill, so had no choice but to seek assistance from the same corporations who had built them. The collaboration between the federal government and BP, one that moved past on-site response to include impact assessment and public relations, seemed to perpetuate the cozy regulatory culture that contributed to the blowout. Despite the disaster having nothing to do with terrorism, the Unified Area Command took full advantage of post-9/11 notions of secrecy, where public disclosures are handled like counterintelligence for the enemy. The oil itself, deemed safe enough to be handled by just-hired clean-up crews, was deemed too dangerous for the media to be allowed within sight of. “Security” was the reason given by local law enforcement and BP-hired private contractors who managed to prevent public access to most points where the oil made landfall. The Coast Guard codified this practice into law, making it a felony to come within a sixty-five foot “safety zone” around response vessels and booms. Behind the cordon, BP workers disposed of dead wildlife and wiped away all visible traces of oil, concentrating their efforts on high-visibility tourist areas.
“Shrimp and petroleum need to coexist peacefully. I don’t think the country realizes that everything from shoes to bicycles comes from the petroleum business.” This was Al Adams III, the 2010 Shrimp and Petroleum King of Morgan City, Louisiana. He was a fifty-eight year-old offshore supply man whose smile had the easy snap of a baseball mitt, standing on his neighbor’s lawn, speaking to a reporter who had asked whether anything was different this year. His words were a mellower version of a reveille that Governor Bobby Jindal blasted out a few weeks earlier at an event called the Rally for Economic Survival: “We are in the middle of a war to defend our way of life. Just as we were responding to one disaster, now we have to fight a second disaster caused by Washington, D.C. … the folks in Washington, they don’t understand energy production … whether they know it or not they need us to power their cars, their factories, and their homes.”
The governor seemed to be suggesting that Louisiana’s claim on the Gulf was so old, so vital, that it had become something more than a contractual arrangement. It was an ancestral right. This reasoning ran parallel to Tea Party firebrands who ride federal highways to national parks to announce their hatred of taxes. The folks in Washington, after all, deserve some credit for making deepwater drilling possible in the first place. It was Washington that built the first national pipelines during World War II and consolidated the leasing process. The enclosure of the Gulf coast, from pirate-infested wasteland to taxable property to exploitable resource, was accomplished with federal power, a process that began with the Swamp Lands Act of 1849. Since then, Louisiana had witnessed the arrival of sugar planters, cypress loggers, fur trappers, exporters of stuffed birds, shrimpers, and now the offshore oilmen. Each wave had inflicted irreversible damage on the surrounding bayous, and yet each had managed to discover a bonanza among the leftovers.
The word “nature” suggests a fragile virginity. Louisiana had long let go of such a concept in favor of a frontier hardy enough to absorb the indignities of commerce. The oilfield was but the latest manifestation of this landscape, an ever-providing, self-healing cornucopia administered by a hospitable God. In this scheme, man is not an intruder, obliged to leave no trace of his passage. He is a guest, welcome to make himself at home, to help himself to whatever resources satisfy his needs and to build whatever constructions he deems necessary to assist in their extraction. Following the spill, some Louisiana politicians argued that the BP spill was the equivalent of spilling a twenty-four ounce can of oil into the Superdome, if the Superdome were filled with seawater, as though setting the line between clean and dirty at zero parts per million was impossibly naïve.
By August, Governor Bobby Jindal had adopted Nungesser’s tactic of shifting the spill narrative away from fish vs. petroleum to a more Katrina-like federal vs. local script, with Washington failing to shield the people from the brutalities of nature. I was still looking for a hero, someone in Louisiana who seemed to understand the inherent tensions between nature and capitalism, or at least the difference between a hurricane and industrial negligence. I made contact with a few traiteurs, Cajun healers, hoping that I could find one who specialized in oil-related maladies. The search led me to voodoo botanicas, to dim bars, to the late Coco Robicheaux, who pressed a gris-gris into my hand, to the Blowout Lounge, a dive in Morgan City where Budweisers multiply three-to-one like mushrooms on the floor of a very dark, cold cave, and most everyone I met knew how to plug the hole, and back to Morgan City again, around Labor Day, for the 2010 Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.
I met the festival queen, a sophomore at LSU who dreamed, her mother told me, of opening a tapas restaurant. I met the king, Al Adams III, an offshore supply man whose smile had the worn snap of a baseball mitt. The king looked me in the eye and said: “Shrimp and petroleum need to coexist peacefully. I don’t think the country realizes that everything from shoes to bicycles comes from the petroleum business.” I wrote this down. I stood beside the king on his pleasure boat, felt the gently rocking waves of the Atchafalaya River, and drank a Miller Light. Still no hero. I drove to Stephensville, past vacation home driveways with 700cc outboards hitched to Ford F-150s, to Tower Tank Road, a strip of asphalt held above the swamp by a mound of crushed shells, and another bar, the Mosquito. Maybe someone there would know where to find Madison Tune.
I had seen Tune’s name printed beneath a photo in The Morgan City Review’s festival edition. The photo showed a man of Nungesserian proportions standing in front of an idled boat, arms folded across his chest. The accompanying story said that Tune had sought compensation for his lost shrimping season at a BP claims office. “You are damn lucky you got what you got,” Tune remembered the adjuster saying, in regards to his $4,000 check. The newspaper reported that the men nearly came to blows.
“I guess you can see I kinda lost interest in the boat,” said Tune, who prefers “Matt” to “Madison,” when I found him pushing a lawnmower on Labor Day, wearing swimming trunks and a pair of Corona flip-flops. Two powerful arms extended from a ragged tank top. His body was burned and freckled to the color of a blood orange and it seemed to soften from the shoulders down, like mountain melting in the sun. Docked behind him was the shrimping boat. The paint was chipped and a tarp hung across the cabin. It looked as though it hadn’t moved in weeks.
Tune said he had seen Obama’s entourage in Grand Isle, arriving in “fifteen limousines and seven Greyhound busses.” The busses dropped off workers who turned over a few shovels of oiled sand, he said, just long enough for a photo-op, and left. Anxious for real work, Tune drove to Gulfport, Mississippi. There his crew washed off a casino wall that became re-oiled with each night’s tide.
“From what I seen physically,” he said, “I can’t see how they can say they got that oil cleaned up that I seen over there a month ago. There just ain’t no way.”
The next day, Tune took me out for a boat ride through the bayou. He showed me the borders of his hunting lease, the tree stumps that held his trawl lines, how the swamp yielded up crawfish, catfish, raccoons, and alligators to a man like him, who made himself its student. “Everything you need to survive is out here,” he said. “You just need to know how to get it.”
In 1861, after surveying the area around Morgan City, a Confederate major general noted “the great number of fishermen, or men of doubtful avocations, who reside in the numerous bayous, quite out of reach of the forts,” and requested that headquarters give him a coast guard. But neither the Confederacy nor its successors could flush out the swamp-men out of their estate, a small piece of which is held today by Tune. The area immediately around his home is a staging area and trophy room for his marine activity—aluminum skiffs, an underwater cage where he keeps fish, hunks of weathered cypress. Hanging from a chain-link fence is a row of dried heads, some the size of melons, severed from the bodies of leviathan catfish. Moving south, the ground recedes beneath a coat of cinder blocks, bits of pipe, wood, cardboard, insulation. Rising from this duff are objects in active use (bicycle, rotary saw), objects in need of repair (dirt bike, jet ski), and objects that appear to trash (empty barrels, rusted steel beam) but are in fact in slow orbit around one of Tune’s plans.
Eight years ago, Mister Jones, the landlord, put the Tunes in charge of collecting rent on his strip of properties. Around the time that he handed Matt the keys to the house where he would live, rent-free, assuming that the $1,000 monthly checks kept coming, the men went out for a boat ride. “Everything you need to survive is out here,” Mister Jones said. “You just need to know how to get it.”
Tower Tank Road looks like a map of the Gulf of Mexico, with its spiderwebs of pipeline running like black veins through the honeycomb of federal leases. Tune’s administration, too, mirrors how frontier authorities break down nature’s messy riches into taxable parcels of value. There are formal and informal deals made with occasional intervention by the authorities, usually not amounting to much. Obligations are made and broken and subject to frequent misunderstandings, with Tune wearing the conflicting hats of mediator, regulator, and tout. Sudden disruptions of the infrastructure can occur, like algae clogging up a drainage pump, requiring an emergency response. At night, waste materials are gathered up and flared off in a bonfire.
In February one of Tune’s tenants went to jail. He was behind on rent. His mother and father had ignored Tune’s voicemails. One morning Tune recruited two friends to destroy the place with a sledgehammer and blowtorch. He planned to salvage the foundation, a lattice of weathered steel. With empty barrels on the bottom and wooden boards on top, it could float off a neighbor’s property as a fishing platform.
Ernie carved at the foundation with a blowtorch. He’d been with Bollinger for twenty-five years, he said, before they fired him for Mexicans.
“I’m glad they ain’t taught Mexicans to fly submarines yet,” said the neighbor, drinking a Bud Light. “I’d be out of a job.”
“It’s the same as the sugar cane, said Tune’s other friend, an older man with a Mosaic beard and a tattered yellow overalls. “These Mexicans. They’ll get out there and get it.”
He leaned against a plastic garbage bin and lit a Pall Mall. Like Tune, he held a commercial fishing license, but as he got older this was turning into more hobby than career. Most of his money came in from driving a cab.
“Are you mad at BP for the spill?” I asked.
“Aw hell yeah,” said the bearded man. “BP fucked every fisherman down here. The environment? We’re fucked. For decades. The Valdez was twenty years ago. They’re still finding oil on the beach.
“Off the record? He wouldn’t make a good slave.”
“Because he talks out of both sides of his mouth.”
“That’s not my president you’re talking about, is it?” Tune jested.
“He ain’t my president.”
“Oh? Who’s yours?” Tune asked.
“Jeff Davis.” He turned to me.
“This ain’t about prejudice. I know a lot of white niggers, ones that ain’t worth pissing on if they was on fire. And a lot of black niggers. The war wasn’t about race and this ain’t either. It’s about states’ rights. Louisiana and Mississippi should have been able to handle it. Not a bunch of bureaucrats coming down from Washington.”
He was standing up straight now, arms at his side, hands balled, holding himself in the posture of the unjustly fucked.
“My allegiance is with the people. Politicians? Round ‘em up and shoot ‘em.”
He dropped his cigarette in the bin and got back to work.
Months after the festival, when I spent a few days staying over, Matt and his wife Tina would sometimes wonder aloud what I thought of them. Tune glided over the question with camaraderie—“This is us,” he said, in one of our first conversations. “After you cross the bridge, this is us backwoods trash.” Tina was more suspicious. “Y’all think we’re backwoods trash,” she would say, as though nothing I could say would make her think different.
Part of what drew me to the Tunes was their resistance to getting completely organized. At the risk of romanticizing their life, they seemed to abide in some sweet spot between town and wilderness, land and water, where they could enjoy the bulk of civilization’s conveniences without having to submit to its timecards, parking meters, or sumptuary norms. The freedom peaked in the early morning, when Matt ventured out to check his trawl lines stretching across the lake, and Tina would fasten the suspenders on his hip-waders, one of a few scenes that caused me to surmise that the Tunes are in love. But there were also melancholy afternoons when Matt would lay in bed with a migraine and Tina would pass the day with cigarettes and TV. A full accounting of petroleum would have to grapple not only with production mishaps but the lived experience of this petroleum-enabled lifestyle, a task that cannot be undertaken without somehow weighing many incommensurables—convenience versus akrasia, abundance versus depression, speed versus exhaust, a certain amount of heat and light versus a certain number of dead turtles. One cannot judge petroleum, in other words, without rendering a judgment on progress itself.
“This dude right back here’ll take a Bud Light, cause I’m home,” said Tune, at the beginning of a cruise up the Atchafalaya. We passed an old fishing camp listing down into the brown river and Tune spoke of moving even further off the grid, to a floating house on some forgotten bend.
“Gasoline, cigarettes, milk, and bullets,” he said. “The four coon-ass food groups. That’s the only reason I’ll have to go into town.” The banks were torn with scars from the cypress loggers of early last century, who felled trees as large as forty feet around and then dragged them out with mules and chains. Now fishermen use the old trails to lay their crawfish traps. Tune turned off the river into a narrow canal, cut straight as a surveyor’s line and choked with dead water lilies. These were the sixty-year-old remains of the old onshore oilfield, part of a 12,000-mile long network of canals that have sliced up Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, accelerating the bayou’s gradual disappearance into the Gulf. Among its scabrous terrain were patches of beauty—emerald corridors of seemingly unblemished swamp, a pair of bald eagles crossing overhead.
We reached our destination, a pair of concrete dodecagons on wooden pilings. Once, Tune said, these platforms held tanks for Shell.
“I will put my camp right there,” said Tune, pointing to the water, “and this,” the platforms, “will be my patio. And they can’t tell me nothing. Nobody owns the water.”
We built a fire and stood around for a while, talking and drinking. Tune had to push to get us back to the dock before dark.
“I was fishing these parts for shad,” said Tune, over the motor. “My cast net caught something under the water. Now, I ain’t one to lose a fifty-dollar cast net. So I jump over the side and I go in after it. And I find my net, all hung up on the branch of an old cypress log, what you’d call a sinker. I go down deeper. I touch bottom, and I open up my eyes. I look around that crystal clear water. It’s like I’m standing in a room—I’m in the middle of a cluster of ‘em. One hundred thousand dollars worth of sinker logs laying in that curve. And I ain’t got a boat to pull ‘em out with.”
Like the tale of Obama in Grande Isle, this was part of the lore that Tune had woven around himself as a man who wasn’t fooled by the surface of things. A piece of nature had been apportioned to him. It was his task to punch a hole in it and suck out the treasure.
The thing holding him back, Tune said, was his brother-in-law Paul Annaloro, and his unwillingness to pull the logs up with his boat. But the way that Annaloro told it, the time Tune had spent shrimping and doing clean-up work wasn’t nearly as extensive as he’d made it out to be, and interviews with Tune’s employer during the clean-up supported Annaloro’s side. BP, Annaloro added, had been more than fair in compensating them both. “They treat me real good, bro,” he said. He and his girlfriend were repairing the fishing boat, which he’d taken back after a series of disputes with Tune. “Eleven thousand this year and hopefully more. Another twenty-five thousand if I don’t file suit.”
At the sandbar we built a fire of moss and fallen branches, then returned to shore and walked up a grassy slope, past an abandoned camp and three kids on ATVs, through a gap in the rusted levy wall, and across the street to the driveway of a friend, where the Tunes had parked their pickup. In his palm the friend held a baby crawfish, his first of the season. By his reckoning it was one month late, but he didn’t seem too concerned. Like Tune, he held a Louisiana commercial fishing license, which almost guaranteed him a share of BP’s $20 billion claims fund. Both he and another friend said they had each received more than ten thousand dollars.
“We could use another oil spill like that,” said the other. “Texaco. Shell. Chevron. Maybe one every two, three years? Then we be all set.”
Shrimping, fishing, crawfish—the seasons were opening up again, and whatever concerns about oil remained were washed away by the spring floods. For the first time since 1973, the Army Corps opened the Morganza Spillway, sending millions of gallons of Mississippi water down into the Atchafalaya Basin. In Morgan City the floodwall held, but on Tower Tank Road they had to pile up sandbags to hold the water back. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, a few homes managed to survive by hiring dump trucks and building high dirt walls. Viewed from above, these one-house islands recalled Nungesser’s vision—nature and government conspiring to wash away the valiant man on the ground.
There was, up until recently, a stretch of marsh at the Mississippi’s southern terminus in relatively pristine condition. Known as the Bird’s Foot Delta, it had been mostly protected from development by two wildlife preserves, and the fact that it could only be accessed by boat. Yes, there are towers of rusty plumbing rising up, here and there, from wells drilled into the delta’s innermost capillaries. And yes, the delta’s three passes could be considered a sort of trivalved sphincter, the final piece of tube that the continent’s industrial flushings pass through on their way to the sea. But the experience of sitting in a still boat in the Mississippi’s final mile, listening to the birds chatter and the cane bend in the wind, feels like a visit to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, like a trespass into the palace of a fallen geological regime.
It was here, the last place where the Mississippi’s banks show some traces of virginity, where oil from the Deepwater Horizon first touched land, on May 5 of last year, coating stands of cane with black crude. Nungesser was there waiting for it. Then came Jindal in a windbreaker and rubber boots, his hair tousled by the airboat ride. Anderson Cooper followed shortly thereafter, and BP’s 48,000-person clean-up apparatus swung into action.
As of February 2011, nearly two years after the spill began, there was still plenty of oil marring the Bird’s Foot Delta. BP’s workers were still there too, depending on the weather. On foggy mornings, crews stayed at the dock in Venice. On hot days, they worked twenty minutes on, forty off. On cold days, when the combined air and water temperature failed to exceed one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, they didn’t work at all. On windy days, they stopped work until the wind subsides. After accounting for morning meetings, loading, unloading, and travel time, a full day’s work under ideal conditions entailed five hours of actual clean-up.
This pace of work is very different from the round-the-clock urgency that BP brings to the task of extracting oil from the seafloor. “They’ll produce oil twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of conditions. The clean-up hasn’t been that way,” said Todd Baker, a biologist who is supervising the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ response to the spill. In late February 2011 we set out by airboat across the Bird’s Foot Delta to see how much oil was left. “The oil is not obvious,” he said, as we pulled away from the LDWF’s camp. “But if you know where to look, you can find it, in any location.”
We stopped at a small island in middle of Pass a Loutre, the delta’s eastern channel, and walked a short distance into the cane, over makeshift wooden walkways that BP’s clean-up workers had laid down, at the LDWF’s request, to keep their boots from pushing the oil down further into the mud. Baker pulled up a handful of black-brown muck with the texture of viscous peanut butter. It smelled like an old tire and left a rainbow sheen on his glove.
“There’s a four inch layer of it here. And we’re about fifty feet back from the edge of the tidal marsh.” Baker sighed. “I don’t know if they’re ever going to get all that out.”
Minutes later, Baker spotted a mound of white feathers on the edge of a beach. “This is an adult herring gull. Dead about twenty-four hours.” He tied Seizure Tag Number 023100 around its leg.
Dead birds are a rare sight—the LDWF finds about twelve each month. Still, Baker marveled at how deadly a small quantity of oil can be to wildlife. A few milliliters of sheen are enough to tangle the hooks and barbules that make feathers waterproof. “An oiled bird is like a sponge,” said Baker. “They can die of hypothermia or exhaust themselves trying to pick the oil out.”
On paper, BP and the LDWF are working together, along with federal and local officials to apply SCAT (Shoreline Clean-up Assessment Technique), a method of surveying the presence of oil on land. SCAT does not measure the concentration of chemicals in soil and water samples. Nor does it take into account their toxicity. There are nearly one million different chemical compounds in crude oil. Scientists have hardly begun to answer the question of which compounds are toxic to which plant and animal species. So while SCAT is a useful tool for flagging areas that need the most cleaning, it offers little guidance for when an area is completely clean.
“There’s an amount of oil that lets you know a place needs to be cleaned,” says Prof. John Nyman, who studies the effects of oil on marshland at LSU. “Then there’s an amount when the plants can survive but the animals can’t. And then there’s an amount where even the plants can’t survive. I’d be fooling myself if I thought I could tell, usually, which was which.”
There have been repeated disagreements between the LDWF and BP over how clean is clean enough—ready for “maintenance and monitoring,” in BP’s parlance. Baker has planted his own flags into oiled ground that BP’s workers have left behind. Officers from the Coast Guard, Baker said, have questioned whether his photographs depict actual oil, so now he brings in soil samples in specimen jars, logging each collection with a handheld GPS device.
On the day we went out, fog had kept BP’s crews in Venice for much of the morning. We didn’t see any workers until the afternoon, on a stretch of beach called South Pass Spit. A few workers remained on the sand; most had put on life jackets and were sitting in crew boats. There were periodic booms from automated propane cannons intended to scare birds off oiled sand. Baker and Clint Dauphinet, the LDWF technician who piloted our airboat, dug a hole and took some soil samples. Then they walked back towards the inflatable dock, where three BP supervisors and a Coast Guard Commander were chatting on the beach.
Dauphinet began talking about some of the oiled areas we had seen. He asked if BP might bring back floating dormitories so crews wouldn’t lose so much time to travel and weather.
“If you’d have turned off that damn fog machine we’d have been out there today,” replied one BP supervisor.
“You got GPS. You got the best captains in the world. What’s the problem?” asked Dauphinet.
“Talk to Jerry,” said the supervisor, pointing to the man on his right. “He’s operations.”
“That was a quick handoff,” said Baker.
“Well … ” said Jerry, stretching the word out. He smiled and shrugged.
Soon after, the supervisors began talking about the possibility of extending working hours. The days were getting longer, said one, maybe long enough to push quit time back to 2:30. Baker was unimpressed. “That was just for you, man,” he said to me. “Just for show. Since day one, they’ve shown up late and left early.”
Back at the LDWF’s headquarters, Baker took the dead herring gull into a dark room and shined an ultraviolet lamp on its body. A fluorescent pink smear shone brightly across its wing.
“We found this bird in an area that was heavily impacted by Deepwater Horizon oil,” he said. “It has a fluorescent material that’s consistent with oil. Now this bird will be logged. It will go into cold storage in New Orleans, and be processed as evidence.” Baker did not want to say what had killed the bird. “That’s a question to be answered by the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice.”
The dead herring gull, tagged and numbered, had become a piece of data awaiting expert interpretation. Along with the corpses of 6,124 other birds, 608 sea turtles, and 100 mammals, it would be registered as another tick on a spreadsheet and circulated in press releases, impact statements, and affidavits. Federal agencies might see fit to refer to it as part of the ongoing National Resource Damage Assessment, an attempt to quantify damages done by the spill to “natural resources held in the public trust” by the government. These damages would be expressed in terms of dollars, continuing a precedent in which qualities of nature are called “resources,” things of use and value, to be measured in money, and bought from their stewards by those with the means to do so, and irreversibly compromised. Or compromised first and paid for later, with the courts determining how much the right to destroy this beach, these animals, this fishing season would have cost, had such rights been for sale. Large sums would move between accounts. Large plumes of oil would remain, unseen, feathering out under bottom of the ocean, advancing or breaking down or holding steady, killing or not killing creatures in unknown numbers, as scientists took measurements and nibbled at the edges of these unknowns.
For Morgan City, home of the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, the oil years began in 1947, when Kerr-McGee drilled the first producing oil well beyond sight of land, ten-and-half miles off the coast. Once known as Jumbo Shrimp Capital of the World, the city’s fathers recast their home as “Gateway to the Tidelands” and Morgan City embarked on a thirty-year oil boom. By 1960 the population had nearly doubled and there were 1,202 vessels registered in Morgan City, putting it on par with the ports of Philadelphia (1,291) and Los Angeles (1,219). Most of this fleet now docks at Port Fourchon, a complex that was specially designed to be a service station for the Gulf. Gone with them are the whorehouses and all but two of the Skid Row saloons. The old workers’ camps have been reduced to a strip of forty-dollar-a-night motels, and the mayor no longer keeps alligators in his yard as a reminder of the old swamp days. Mr. Charlie, the world’s first mobile offshore drilling platform, has now retired to the Atchafalaya’s banks as a museum of petroleum history, where the tour guide wears a mechanic’s jumpsuit and floats theories about petroleum being renewably generated beneath the earth’s crust. But in the midst of all this capitalist flux, a few constants remain—Oceaneering, Conrad Shipyard, the Candy fleet, Bollinger, and Cameron Ironworks, perhaps the same Cameron facility where the Deepwater Horizon’s blow-out preventer was last tested. And Morgan City still has seventy-eight year-old B.A. “Red” Adams, dean of the town’s oil men.
We met for lunch at the Petroleum Club, a series of octagonal chambers with windows tinted black and decorated with the generic sumptuousness of a corporate law firm. Adams began his oilfield career on the lowest rung, a roustabout. He built an exploration supply company from scratch, riding out the offshore boom and selling to Allis-Chalmers Energy for more than $200 million. He was dressed simply, in a black cardigan, khaki slacks, white shirt, and a watch with a black leather band. With him was a friend, Bob Miller, who owns his own offshore supply company.
“What is this sol-ah? What is this clean energy?” Adams asked, after we’d made introductions. “It might come one day. Maybe twenty-five, thirty years from now. Maybe so. But if Brah-muh’s gonna bullshit the people that he can do this in three to five years, he’s so outta step that it’s not even funny.”
Both men ordered the special, chicken Wellington with green beans. Adams was angry about Washington’s perception of the blowout as a catastrophic event. He understood it to be an industrial accident—tragic and likely preventable, but, in the wider scheme of things, a routine part of an inherently risky industrial process.
“It happens!” He gave his black napkin a gentle toss into the air. “Hell, a plane crash. It happens. The old boy don’t want to crash a plane and kill four hundred people. But it happens. You know?”
Miller elaborated: “Things get written down to give you a narrative of what happened. When you read about it, it’s easy to say that things should have stopped right there. But that’s far different from the way things do happen. Regardless of what the government says, regardless of what major oil companies say, accidents happen.”
To Adams it was very simple. “Humans are human. This happens!”
Miller remembered being hoisted up on a loop of cable, thirty feet in the air, and told to beat on a stubborn flange with a wrench. Adams had once crawled out along fifty-foot length of cable “to unfoul a screw-up. No safety belt, no safety nothing. I run out there like a rat, and do that thing, and come back.”
“You ask a guy to do that today?” said Miller. “You’d go to prison.”
The oil field remains one of America’s riskiest workplaces. Fatality rates for oil and gas extraction are roughly seven times as high as the rate for all workers, and rose steadily as the industry expanded during the 1990’s offshore boom. To Miller and Adams, danger is part of the job. One day, while working for Shell, Miller’s father fell through a rotten board and caught himself on a nail that went straight through his hand. “The doc gave him some peroxide and wrapped him up. He was back at work the next day.”
Workers today, the men said, have a weaker ethic. They make simple mistakes, like yanking wrenches upwards instead of levering their body weight. They don’t know the proper way to operate a broom. Fathers don’t teach these things any more. “Maybe this is just the standard course,” said Miller. “The Roman Republic? Three hundred years. I don’t think we’ll make three hundred. Not in this shape and form.”
The waitress cleared our plates. Miller made a plea for the strength of nature. “Look at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl. The world got a pretty clear case for cleaning itself up. It just takes a little time, that’s all.”
Adams had paid due attention to standard-of-living arguments. (“We had factories running and turning that big old wheel with that energy,” he said, “Once you got that wheel turning, you could do anything.”) But Miller’s reference to the atomic bomb reminded me just how much of petroleum’s load-lifting powers have been harnessed not for leisure but for war. After vanquishing the Axis, a feat due in no small part to superior access to petroleum, the U.S. turned to consumerism to absorb the surpluses generated by a fully militarized economy. Around this time, the Morgan City Chamber of Commerce published a brochure bragging about the battle-honed death guts of their labor force, “the wilder sense of adventure, the cavalier whose tenacity allowed him to look into the unknown and not flinch.” The bomb bay proved a good education for the men who would wrangle five-thousand-pound traveling blocks on the rotary drilling floor, as the big old wheel that had spun out death machines shifted production to Hoover vacuums and V-8 Chevrolets. A portion of this surplus made its way to Madison Tune in the form of three barbeques, a locker full of long guns and no fewer than twenty rods and reels hanging from the ceiling.
We are bound so inextricably to petroleum that to ask whether the substance is worth its cost is to ask the ultimate question of progress—whether things on the whole are getting better or worse. “Getting better” arguments usually come down to numbers, steady and measurable increases in the standard of living, the GDP, worldwide access to all modern conveniences. The weakness of numbers is that they only care about whatever is being counted, and so “getting worse” arguments take up the banner of that which isn’t or can’t be counted. Within this dialectic, an optimist can see a kind of progress within the very concept of progress, as the “getting worse” side adds things like carbon in the atmosphere and fish in the ocean to the category of things worth counting. But one could, of course, point to carbon-credit scams and Adult Herring Gull 023100, and say that these new, more enlightened forms of measurement amount to price tags, and that they will eventually lead to the privatized destruction of our collective inheritance.
And wasn’t there a time not so long ago, when we were so confident in the quality of the atmosphere and the bounty of the oceans that no one felt the counting of carbon and fish to be necessary? The very fact that we need to count things that we once believed to be infinite is one of the strongest indications of our present vulnerability. Capitalism is built the image of man competing for scarce resources, a lie, but give capitalism enough time and it will make the lie true.
Among the uncountable costs of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the psychic trauma it inflicted on anyone who still believes that the earth contains pieces of original, wild nature. The spill was a concrete visual representation of a process that has been gradually unfolding since the Industrial Revolution—human need, human desire, and human enterprise extending like a shroud over the clean blue world. Today there are more trees growing on farms than forests. We deliberately dig up nearly three tons of sediment for every one that the rivers carry to the sea. In the coming decades carbon in the air will submerge hundreds of square miles beneath rising water, among them great swaths of Louisiana bayou. Will and capital are the primary forces shaping the face of the earth. This was true long before the spring of 2010, but the spill made the ugly effects of these forces especially conspicuous.
In a world dominated by capitalism, nature, paradoxically, is the most artificial of environments. It is an open-air museum, a preserve sealed off by rigid legal frameworks. The real wild is not in nature but at capitalism’s piratical leading edge, where highly evolved predators feast with impunity. Once it was the Gulf’s waters that had their attention; now they stalk the Russian Artic and try to squeeze a few more paid clicks from each idle consumer minute. What makes their wilderness different from the ones that came before is the unique character of the predator, homo sapiens, this creature that can eat and eat and still be hungry.
What to do in such a world? You look for shelter, some constant that made it through the last storm cycle and looks like it could weather the next one. You hang on, and you don’t let go.
This story was published as a part of the “Teen Sex Energy / Land Money Power” booklet, available from Spoonbill and Sugartown, St. Mark’s Bookshop, McNally Jackson, Book Thug Nation, and firstname.lastname@example.org.