More than a decade after the BP oil spill, one of the most environmentally destructive incidents that destroyed communities and wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico, the rate of oil production continues to trend up. 

The nation’s thirst for oil has continued to fuel an industry that has endangered the environment and communities in the Southeast.

Those pro-fossil fuel policies continued under President Donald Trump as the White House attempted to reimagine and bolster its industrial credentials. But the reality was already clear. Coal has been in terminal decline for decades while oil and gas jobs have dwindled since 2014.

Under President Biden, the dangerous reality of fossil fuels has been fully accepted unlike his predecessors. Or so it seems. The United States was the voice of moral and ethical reasoning at the recent United Nations conference in Scotland, calling on all nations to radically and aggressively address climate change. Yet in the same week, the federal government made plans to auction off over 80 million acres of Gulf coast for oil exploration.

These actions have called into question how committed the country is to being a leader of climate change. And while nations and politicians squabble over the best course of action, the southeast’s environment and communities are continuing to suffer.

Reckon spoke with Dustin Renaud, director of communications at Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans-based environmental justice group that advocates for the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico.

Dustin Renaud is the director of communications at Healthy Gulf.

Over the last year, there doesn’t seem to have been a day where the environment hasn’t been mentioned in the news. But there’s been a lot of conflicting information coming from both sides of the political spectrum, including contradictory actions from the Biden administration. For example, his government made promises to reduce carbon emissions while at the recent United Nations Climate Conference but then days later put up 80+ million acres of the Gulf of Mexico up for auction.

Will there ever be an end to oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico?

I agree that it has been confusing. It looks like the federal government is not going to auction off the entire Gulf anymore. Instead, they’ll auction off smaller blocks because it will drive up bids.

That was contained in a report released on Friday by the Department of Interior titled Tackling the Climate Crisis. And a lot of environmental groups were expecting the report to really dig into the leasing program on federal lands, and more importantly for us, federal waters in the Gulf. And it did sort of dig into those things, but it wasn’t in the context of climate at all. In fact, the entire 18-page report, including the appendix, mentioned climate four times, including one mention in the title and one in a footnote.

We were very disappointed because we thought it was going to talk about the implications that offshore leasing and subsequent exploration and drilling is having on the climate. It’s estimated that 26% of our emissions are from the federal government leasing our federal lands and waters. It was not that at all. Instead, it was a financial accountability report.

But what it effectively did or is going to do is make polluters pay their fair share for the mess they leave behind.

And it does a couple of other things that we’ve been fighting for over the years, including making sure that leasing companies clean up their mess by making them pay a bond when they sell a lease. It would also increase bonding on the amount of acreage leased and increase royalty rates paid to the federal government, which hasn’t been increased since the 1920s.

So not only did they manage to piss off the oil companies, they also upset environmentalists.

The federal government seems to be in some kind of purgatory right now with respect to the environment. People are complaining about gas prices, while also asking that we look after the environment. It’s almost as if the government is trying to please everybody but has instead pleased nobody.

That is exactly what’s happening. Being concerned about gas prices, that’s a fair and righteous concern. It affects everyone and more so those from low-income backgrounds. And at the same time we’re shipping it overseas, and we could very much reel that in a bit. So I think they are in kind of a conundrum at the moment of wanting to tackle the climate crisis and keep people happy at the pumps. But they haven’t managed to get the right balance. And think they’re moving too slow out of an abundance of caution.

But in the long term, they’re not looking at how a climate can impact everyone. Looking at the bottom line is a good and sensible thing, but climate change will continue to be a very expensive challenge for the US. Sea levels will continue to rise all along the Gulf of Mexico, including the endangered Louisiana coast. These threats are real, in addition to the damage created by oil and gas.

Over the last 18 months, the United States seems to have taken a lead on climate change, and during the climate conference in Scotland emerged as a progressive moral and ethical voice. I remember feeling intense relief. And yet the government seems to be taking this laissez-faire approach. It’s heart wrenching. Is the US the right nation to take the lead on climate change? 

We can’t be leaders on climate change in the US if we don’t address the real issue of emissions in the Gulf. Currently, there are 20 fracked gas facilities being proposed on the Gulf Coast, in the middle of hurricane alley. That’s a safety issue for communities if those facilities are built out and we continue drilling at the current rate. 

So if the world is going to believe and trust us, we need to start in the Gulf. Alongside that, there are a lot of communities that need to be made whole from years of being in what we call sacrifice zones to the oil and gas industry. And I think making polluters pay their fair share is a good start. But we need to move much quicker to make effective change.

So you’re saying that drilling in the Gulf hasn’t declined, but there are rumors that oil and gas jobs are in decline. What are you seeing?

There’s definitely a decline in oil and gas jobs, but it’s definitely not Biden’s fault. That decline started in 2014. And it’s been trending downwards ever since. The oil and gas companies did some rehiring, but it’s never been back up to 2014 levels. They found a way during the Trump administration to keep and increase drilling, but not increase employees. So yeah, there’s this conundrum of oil and gas jobs declining, but it’s because oil and gas companies are looking out for their bottom line and not for their workers or the environment.

And how does that attitude by these companies play into the energy transition we’re seeing in some states?

Some states are embracing it and others are not. Places like Louisiana and Texas are building wind turbines and shipping them up to New Hampshire, for example. We’re not building it for ourselves to replace the oil and gas jobs on the Gulf Coast. And that’s a huge issue. And it’s because our politicians are so beholden to the oil and gas industry, especially in Louisiana and Texas. It’s political suicide to do anything that they don’t want you to do, including pushing renewables or allowing you to sell back solar energy to the electrical grid. They’re blocking that in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

So we have to figure out how to get this political stranglehold off of Gulf communities before we see real change.

You brought up environmental sacrifice zones. Can you explain that a bit more and how it plays into politics and health outcomes?

Some of the best examples are communities in Texas and Louisiana. People whose homes are right up besides big polluting industries. We call them fenceline communities. There aren’t any buffer zones around these massive chemical, petrochemical refining facilities.

Oftentimes you see this in majority black communities, where their political power has been withheld by gerrymandering and other political tactics. In those places, like cancer alley in Louisiana, there are severe generational health impacts. The cancer rates are some of the highest in the nation alongside Port Arthur, Texas, Lake Charles and Mossville in Louisiana.

There are these pockets where they’ve just put in all of this industry and people cannot prevent it.

What industry forgets is people literally live in these places. The emissions are so bad that it’s unconscionable and inhumane.

Then on the other hand, on the environmental side of things, the wetlands in Louisiana, which protect communities from hurricane storm surges, are being destroyed by oil and gas. New Orleans is largely protected by wetlands that are disappearing at an alarming rate. About 60% of the wetlands are disappearing, not just because of emissions but also because oil and gas companies haven’t cleaned up their mess and they dig huge trenches through the wetlands to explore for more oil and gas or to put in pipes. 

Then they find something or they don’t find something – and they just leave that canal exposed. They’re legally supposed to backfill those canals. Imagine digging a 60-foot trench through wetlands and when they don’t fill it in all of that land just kind of falls in and that slowly destroys the entire area.

How do we prevent that from happening?

What we were hoping for in this report that came out last week was an environmental statement of oil and gas impacts on the Gulf. Because you can’t look at individual projects and piecemeal it together. We need a full and transparent report that gathers the cumulative impacts of all the projects. So we’re really hoping that the Biden administration does take a closer look at the impacts, not only of our communities but the global impacts of emissions that are being created as a result of the production of oil and gas in the Gulf region.

And it’s from there that we can really start to identify ways to look at step-by-step prevention and alternatives.