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Hydrocarbon Hucksters

Hydrocarbon Hucksters: Lessons from Louisiana on Oil, Politics, and Environmental Justice

Ernest Zebrowski
Mariah Zebrowski Leach
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Hydrocarbon Hucksters
    Book Description:

    Hydrocarbon Huckstersis the saga of the oil industry's takeover of Louisiana--its leaders, its laws, its environment, and, by rechanneling the flow of public information, its voters. It is a chronicle of mindboggling scientific and technical triumphs sharing the same public stew with myths about the "goodness" of oil and bald-faced public lies by politicians and the captains of industry. It is a story of money and power, greed and corruption, jingoism and exploitation, pollution and disease, and the bewilderment and resignation of too many of the powerless. Most importantly,Hydrocarbon Huckstersis a case study of what happens when a state uncritically hands the oil and petrochemical industries everything they desire. Today, Louisiana ranks at or near the bottom of the fifty states on virtually every measure related to the quality of life--income, health, education, environment, public services, public safety, physical infrastructure, and vulnerability to disasters (both natural and man-made). Nor, contrary to the claims of the hydrocarbon sector, has there been much in the way of job creation to offset all of this social grief.

    The authors (one a scientist, the other an environmental lawyer) have woven together the science, legal history, economic issues, and national and global contexts of what has happened. Their objective is to raise enough national awareness to prevent other parts of the United States from repeating Louisiana's historical follies. The authors are uncle and niece, a generation apart, who have melded their conclusions from two separate tracks.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-987-7
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Chapter 1 THE WELL FROM HELL
    (pp. 3-21)

    April 20, 2010, Transocean’s $560 million offshore rigDeepwater Horizonis barely two days from completing its part of the project. The exploratory drill (monikered “Macondo”) has successfully tapped an enormous reservoir of oil 13,293 feet beneath the seabed at the bottom of the mile-deep Mississippi Canyon, about forty-two nautical miles from the Louisiana coastline. The tasks remaining are to temporarily seal the well, offload the drilling fluid (aka “mud”), and tow the giant rig to the coordinates of its next exploration job. On some future date, the owner of this particular offshore lease, BP (formerly British Petroleum), will tow...

  6. Chapter 2 BLACK GOLD
    (pp. 22-35)

    It’s actually not black when it first sees the light of day. Usually it’s a reddish brown or sometimes a pale dishwater yellow or even a pastel greenish-brown. There are numerous places in the world where it seeps from the ground naturally. When that happens, the lighter chemical components soon evaporate away, and what’s left behind is a dark, sticky tar. An example can be seen today at the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles, where scientists have recovered the bones of thousands of prehistoric animals that unwittingly got trapped in the ooze, including wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats,...

  7. Chapter 3 ONTO THE SHELVES
    (pp. 36-51)

    Unlike most other industries, oil producers have little flexibility in choosing their sites of operation. The oil is where it is, and that can include some pretty challenging places: the frozen Arctic, sweltering deserts, and, of course, beneath the seas. In fact, geologists tell us thatallof our planet’s petroleum started out in sea or lake beds tens of millions of years ago. Today’s drillers find oil under solid land only because some seafloors happened to heave upward over the ages.

    Terra firmais a misnomer; our Earth’s crust is anything but stable. On a human-scale timeline, we have...

  8. Chapter 4 OOPS—1980
    (pp. 52-59)

    November 21, 1980.

    The official hurricane season is almost over, with no major storms striking anywhere in the United States this year. An exploratory drill into the bed of Lake Peigneur, in south-central Louisiana, is right on schedule. The owner of the lease is Texaco.

    Until now, it’s been a small lake, lima-bean shaped, covering about 1,300 acres at an average depth of just three feet and plunging to barely eleven feet at its deepest. In most respects it’s an unremarkable body of water, comparable to at least a hundred other unremarkable shallow freshwater lakes in Louisiana’s coastal parishes.


  9. Chapter 5 MORE OOPS—1969, 1979, AND 1989
    (pp. 60-76)

    It’s not clear who decided to name BP’s Mississippi Canyon well “Macondo,” but it was definitely an inspired choice. (And yes, that name was used even on the original drilling application.) In a 1967 novel by the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez,One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Macondo” is a mythical jungle town where for seven generations the residents repeatedly forget their past and are doomed to make the same mistakes over and again. Marquez’s allegory, of course, relates to the history and future of Latin America. By the end of his novel, the city of Macondo evaporates into...

    (pp. 77-93)

    The history of American industry is replete with marvelous stories of Yankee ingenuity juxtaposed with dismal accounts of environmental pillage and exploitations of the working class. The steel industry in western Pennsylvania, coal mining in Appalachia, gold and silver extraction in the West, and, yes, drilling for oil and gas—all began with a devil-may-care attitude toward the natural world and a lack of concern for the physical well-being of workers and locals. After all, given the vastness of Nature, what harm was a little pollution here and there? If some individuals didn’t like this or that smidgen of environmental...

  11. Chapter 7 CHEMICAL VOODOO
    (pp. 94-106)

    In the United States as a whole, chemical pollution (including in inland waters) averages about 570 pounds per square mile per year. In Louisiana, the corresponding figure is roughly 1,800 pounds per square mile per year, more than three times as high. On a per capita basis, this amounts to about 7 pounds of pollution per person per year nationwide, but in Louisiana it is about 21 pounds per person—and in some poorer communities it averages more than a whopping 2,000 pounds per person per year. In fact, by virtually any measure, Louisiana is the most polluted state in...

    (pp. 107-122)

    Around 1951, an honest, hard-working family man in one of the rural parishes of northern Louisiana had a disheartening experience, one that was all too common at this time. Yes, he was a real person, and we know this episode is true (at least in its essentials) because we’ve corroborated it with the handwritten mineral lease records in the nearby parish courthouse—entries that probably hadn’t been examined by anyone else in more than sixty years. Because we promised the fellow’s living descendants that we’d keep their surnames out of this account, we’ll refer to that old-timer as “Tadpole.” In...

  13. Chapter 9 OF WISDOM AND FOLLY
    (pp. 123-139)

    American-style democracy was not designed to guarantee that only the best and the brightest would lead. Instead, the governing concept was more akin to a revolving door, where citizen-lawmakers would serve in office for relatively short periods (a handful of years), then return to private life before the trappings of power tempted them to pursue their personal interests at the expense of the public good. Those temporary office-holders might be great thinkers or mediocre thinkers or even substandard thinkers, but regardless, even their blunders would be corrected over time, provided that they didn’t stay in office very long.

    So went...

  14. Chapter 10 DRILL, BABY, DRILL
    (pp. 140-154)

    Picture this: One day you hear on the news that there has been a drastic decrease in the global supply of oil. Soon you notice that one gas station after another is closing due to lack of supply. You need to put fuel in your car to get to work, but some retailers enforce a ten-gallon limit per customer and others are open for business only on alternate days. These closures and restrictions lead to bumper-to-bumper lines that stretch on for blocks. Tempers flare and fights break out. Politicians start calling for gasoline rationing programs, and several states enforce odd-even...

    (pp. 155-169)

    In 2011, the five largest oil companies—ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips—reported a combined total of $140 billionin profits.ExxonMobil has been growing in leaps and bounds over the past few years. In 2005, it surpassed Walmart as the world’s largest publicly held corporation (when measured by revenue; but Walmart still has the largest number of employees). In 2008, ExxonMobil was the world’s most profitable company. In 2010, it occupied eight out of ten slots on the list of the “Largest Corporate Quarterly Earnings of All Time,” and five out of ten on the “Largest Corporate Annual Earnings” list....

  16. Chapter 12 CAN AMERICA LEARN?
    (pp. 170-184)

    For more than a century now, the people of Louisiana have been cocooned in an experimental laboratory where the oil and petrochemical industries have been granted everything they’ve asked for. Numerous rounds of empirical results are now in, and as we’ve seen in previous chapters, the results aren’t pretty. Still, the industry continues to try to dupe residents of other states into believing that the oil and petrochemical interests can be trusted to pursue the public good. Trusted to be environmentally responsible. Trusted to ensure worker safety. Trusted to create lots of well-paying jobs. Trusted to shower financial rewards on...

    (pp. 185-192)
    (pp. 193-194)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 195-202)