"Standing Down" to Big Energy: Obama's Betrayal of Water, Land, and Lives on the Gulf Coast

obama and camardelleThis month's New Yorker magazine features a very good article by Ryan Lizza entitled, "The President and the Pipeline," which examines the merits and politics behind President Obama's upcoming decision on the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. 

As they do elsewhere, Obama's words insist that his personal commitment to fighting climate change runs deep - so deep that “failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Yet with the single, self-contradicting deed of giving an uncritical 'thumbs up' to the pipeline's southern or Gulf Coast leg - Obama has himself betrayed our children and future generations while donning the sheep's clothing of a caring father, reformist president and super heroic slayer of villainous climate deniers. Like countless local, state and national politicians before him - but unlike those who have been more or less honest about it - President Obama knowingly, willingly, and dishonestly sacrificed Gulf Coast families and ecosystems to Big Oil and Energy yet again.

Photo: President Obama visits Grand Isle, Summer 2010 (pictured with Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle). Source: WhiteHouse.gov

This isn't the first time that I have been extremely disappointed and caught off guard by Mr. Obama, a President who was elected by me and millions of others seduced by his optimistic and timely rhetoric of "hope" and "change." Like Louisiana talking head James Carville and many personal friends still confronting BP's Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling Disaster, I was utterly bewildered when this President showed virtually no spine or real determination towards tackling the disaster early on. Buried in Lizza's recent New Yorker article, the following paragraphs grabbed my attention:

"In April, 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, spilling some two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a debate ensued within the Administration. The E.P.A and other agencies wanted to use the event to vilify BP and drive an environmental agenda that would take on the fossil-fuel industry. They found little support at the White House, where Obama’s senior staff believed that such an approach was either wrong on the merits or politically dangerous.

"'We were told to stand down,' a former senior Administration official who argued for taking a more confrontational approach said..."

"We were told to stand down." These six very simple and unfortunate words brought me back to May 2010 and to my buddy Mike Roberts' newly re-fitted shrimp boat, docked idly for the first season in years behind his modest, hurricane tested and retested home on Bayou Barataria. On the night of Obama's morning visit and shamefully self-lauding speech in nearby Grande Isle, and with low-flying planes and the smell of BP's crude oil and dispersants filling the thick, humid Louisiana air, I drafted the following letter:

Dear Mr. President,

I am one of many thousands of Gulf Coast residents who find it profoundly inappropriate for anyone to praise - as you have - your administration's response thus far to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling Disaster, which is rapidly spreading throughout the northern and eastern Gulf of Mexico.

As one who has met in person and on conference calls with federal agencies and appointed officials repeatedly over the past few weeks, I am appalled rather than impressed or encouraged by what you have mistakenly construed as your administration's boldness and efficacy in response to what is happening offshore and along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

More specifically, I am but one of many front line community members and NGO representatives who consider your administration's response to be slow, fickle and grossly under-scaled – as well as alarmingly deferential to BP's science, math and broad self-regulation as "Responsible Party."

To begin with, this is no mere "oil spill," but rather an increasingly large, reckless and catastrophic discharge of toxic crude oil and chemical dispersant into the United States' most productive fishery and fragile coastal ecosystem. It is additionally yet another socio-economic and public health "death blow" to low-income coastal families and communities in our nation's perennially poorest and least healthy states– many of whom have not recovered from the lingering devastation of Hurricanes Wilma, Cindy, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. It is also just the very beginning of what could easily become the farthest reaching environmental, cultural and social catastrophe in United States history.

As such, this is not the time for BP – a privately-owned, foreign corporation – to be running the show. Having experienced Blackwater, Halliburton and other private contractors wrongly handed federal functions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we have eagerly anticipated something fundamentally different from your reform-minded Presidency. BP paying the bill, yes, but certainly not controlling or directing the flow of critical information, setting public safety standards, or independently developing a private disaster workforce that lacks adequate training, safety equipment, fairness in hiring, protection from additional losses, and even free speech.

Desperate to feed their families and to pay their bills, thousands of coastal fisherman have effectively been reduced to oil spill sharecroppers on a BP cleanup plantation that has been euphemistically christened "Vessels of Opportunity." In Mississippi, millions of BP dollars have been spent by government to promote local tourism while nothing has been spent to address coastal citizens' urgent and well-known public health and safety concerns. Volunteers have been recruited to lay boom and clean oiled beaches and wildlife, and hundreds of citizen phone calls, emails and public comments suggesting technical methods for containing the oil have remained unanswered for weeks.

While federal officials, including you, have indeed been visible and available in numerous press conferences, community meetings and conference calls, the prevailing message and tone remain minimalistic and ultimately consistent with BP's daily spin. With governors and congressmen from several gulf states intentionally downplaying the disaster and openly snubbing visits to the region by you, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and others – local people are legitimately and increasingly angered by your administration's sweepingly soft stance and lofty rhetoric. We believe that neither federal abdication nor BP's ascension to super-state status is sanctioned under law, and we desperately await real federal leadership.

While I believe you are genuinely concerned and indeed angered by much of what has gone wrong since this disaster began, your administration has nonetheless fallen short of the very accountability standards and high mindedness reflected in your recurring verbal chastisements of BP, and in your past critiques of the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. The only explanation I can imagine is that you remain grossly uninformed and in urgent need of quicker, broader and more truthful information from the ground - such as that which front-line NGOs can offer. Meeting with a Regional Community Advisory Council similar to what was established in Alaska following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill would be an appropriate place to start.

In the meantime, please be advised that your recent, self-praising rhetoric in the midst of such failure, heartbreak, and escalating harm is no more accurate, comforting or useful than the current or past platitudes spun by those whose responses to Gulf Coast disasters have consistently – and perhaps deliberately – lacked efficacy, transparency and accountability. I trust that this is not the historical company that you wish to keep for much longer.

Finally, as my good friend Mike Roberts, a third generation shrimper from Bayou Barataria, LA recently said with tears in his eyes: Osama Bin Laden himself could not have fathomed, planned or executed a more devastating blow to the American people and homeland than what BP has done.

Mike and I, like so many others across the Gulf Coast, are earnestly hoping that you will soon discover and embrace the humility, wisdom and courage required to understand and respond accordingly to this most urgent truth.


Derrick Christopher Evans

Derrick Christopher Evans is the director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives and an advisor to the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. Since 2001 he has worked to help protect and revitalize his coastal Mississippi community and sister communities throughout the region. Prior to that he taught civil rights history at Boston College and social studies in the Boston Public Schools.