Statutory Rape: How Big Oil Gets Away With Destroying Louisiana’s Coast (Part One)

On September 27, 2007, Congressman Bobby Jindal walked under the rotunda of Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, an impressive gothic building that could easily be mistaken for a cathedral, perched on a bluff in downtown Baton Rouge with sweeping views of the Mississippi River. Congressman Jindal, then only 36 years old, was auditioning for the same role he lost out on in 2003, but this time, he was fully prepared. This time, he wasn’t just armed with talking points; he cited detailed, extensive position papers on just about everything he could think of: Education, health care, coastal restoration, crime prevention, government waste, and his personal favorite, ethics reform. 

Jindal shared the stage with three other men also seeking to take over Huey P. Long’s old job: John Georges, a wealthy entrepreneur from New Orleans who made a bulk of his fortune in video poker; Walter Boasso, a successful Cajun businessman and State Senator, and Foster Campbell, long-time Democratic firebrand in the State Senate who championed repealing excise taxes on oil and gas companies and replacing it with a 6% processing tax. 

Remember, this was September of 2007, only two years after the most devastating hurricane in American history made landfall, only two years after the federal levees failed and sank 80% of New Orleans underwater, killing more than 1,000 Americans in its wake. The task ahead was monumental and unprecedented. It demanded competence and cooperation on every level of government.

But Bobby Jindal’s top priority was ethics reform. “Who you know should not be as important as what you know when it comes to doing business here,” he said emphatically. Less than a month later, on October 20, 2007, Bobby Jindal coasted to the Governor’s Mansion, capturing 54% of the primary vote.

More than six years later, we know that Jindal’s ethics reform package, which he called “the gold standard,” was nothing more than a checklist from a conservative think tank. As The Times-Picayune uncovered in their extensive, Peabody award-winning series “Louisiana Purchased,” in Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, who you know matters much more than what you know ever did.

Looking back on that gubernatorial debate in September 2007, it is clear that only one candidate had a legitimate plan for Louisiana. Jindal, despite his 31-point plans and his fast-talking style, was bluffing. He had no real intention of cleaning up corruption and opening up government. In fact, under his ethics reform package, he significantly expanded public records exemptions for his office, blocking citizens and the media from troves of documents. Jindal’s number one priority wasn’t actually about ethics; it was about selling himself to voters as clean and incorruptible, and it worked.

If only Louisiana voters had really listened to Foster Campbell. Senator Campbell’s plan was and still is brilliant: By repealing the excise tax on oil and gas companies and replacing it with a 6% processing tax, Louisiana would have earned an additional $5.5 billion a year in revenue. Instead, under Governor Jindal, funding for higher education has been cut more than any other state in the country. Budgets are balanced through manipulative accounting: Raiding funds that were designed to pay out dividends over the long-term, slashing jobs, privatizing important public assets like prisons and hospitals, and liberally using “one-time only” money. Last week, Governor Jindal ordered a spending freeze for all state agencies.

The situation is dire. It’s not sustainable or tenable. And despite what he may say, Jindal is not a fiscal conservative. He’s a reverse Robin Hood, a crony capitalist. During his tenure, Louisiana’s public institutions have been decimated under the pretense of “policy innovation,” and Governor Jindal has committed every spare penny he can find to private, multi-national corporations; all they need to do is employ someone who knows how to plug in outlandish projections into an Excel spreadsheet.

Foster Campbell’s projections, however, were not outlandish. Had he been elected, Louisiana, today, would be more than $30 billion richer.

There was just one problem: Big Oil, ironically, now owns the House that Huey Built.

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Eighty years before the Haynesville Shale and deepwater drilling, eighty years before Louisiana’s coastline was dotted with twinkling rigs, before the Lake Charles suburbs began to resemble a post-apocalyptic dystopia, before levees were built and canals were dredged, before it was humanly possible to spill 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a lawyer from a small town named Winnfield had an audacious and simple plan to modernize Louisiana: Charge the oil companies for the resources they were extracting. It was hugely controversial. He was called a communist and a tyrant. Ultimately, he was assassinated. But Huey P. Long’s plan worked: Roads were paved; hospitals were built; school children were given free textbooks.

And due, in large part, to Louisiana’s modernized infrastructure and better educated workforce, Louisiana’s oil and gas industry boomed.

Vast fortunes were made, and the money was intoxicating. For decades, Louisiana lawmakers looked the other way as oil and gas companies pillaged the coast. In the late 1980s, when Governor Buddy Roemer attempted to enforce environmental regulations, Big Oil balked, and shortly thereafter, Roemer was out of office. More recently, when the Obama administration issued a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling permits following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill- the largest environmental disaster in American history, Big Oil, along with their paid spokesmen in the Louisiana Republican Party, claimed that the moratorium would destroy tens of thousands of jobs, decimating the local economy of Lafayette and costing billions of dollars. Instead, over the last four years, Lafayette has remained one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation.

All of this is to say: Louisiana is being lied to.

Big Oil needs Louisiana more than Louisiana has ever needed Big Oil. It would cost Big Oil exponentially more money to pick up their toys and go somewhere else than it would for them to pay to remediate the environmental damages they have negligently and illegally inflicted on the Louisiana coast.

But, as I will explore in Part Two, fortunately for Big Oil, they’ve never needed to follow the law in Louisiana. They write the law. They regulate themselves. And if, in that rare event in which they’re actually held accountable for breaking the law, no worries, they’ll just write another law.