This is a guest post by environmental communication professor and Louisiana native Ned Randolph.
Living in Louisiana, reconciling the environmental harm caused by the state’s often celebrated oil and petrochemical sectors amounts to cognitive gaslighting.
The state experiences one of the highest relative sea-level rise rates in the world while it breathlessly promotes its oil and gas sector. It celebrates proposed expansions to its petrochemical corridor even as noxious fumes sicken residents and plastics litter its streams and rivers.
A cognitive dissonance is required. Take the nurdle, the building block of plastic consumer products manufactured by Formosa Plastics and other plants in Louisiana.
As yet another major hurricane batters Louisiana’s coast, there are millions of lentil-sized nurdle pellets washing up along the sandy banks of the Mississippi and into the Gulf after an August 2 shipping accident at the Port of New Orleans.
The accident happened during a thunderstorm at the Napoleon Avenue Wharf. News reports say the CGM CMA Bianco came loose from its moorings and dropped the container. As it was being lifted out of the water two days later, the container opened and dropped a portion of its 25-ton payload of plastic pellets, which the Port of New Orleans called “irretrievable.” The spill was unattended for weeks. The Coast Guard said it lacked jurisdiction because the solidified petroleum-based material is not classified as hazardous waste, leaving the cleanup to state regulators. Eventually, CMA CGM hired cleanup crews to use leaf blowers and butterfly nets, a half-hearted effort that now falls on volunteers to painstakingly collect tiny plastic pellets.
Up to 750 million pellets began swirling around as trash, binding with pesticides and pollutants and being eaten by birds, fish, and other wildlife, entering our food web. One pollution scientist called the spill “a nurdle apocalypse.”
Fed by the industrial Mississippi River, it’s no coincidence that the Gulf of Mexico has one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution in the world — much of it due to manufacturing operations in our own backyard. The vaunted industrial corridor on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is a top producer of U.S. petrochemicals and touted by business advocates as an important source for thousands of manufacturing jobs. But its darker euphemism of “Cancer Alley” speaks to the terrible health outcomes and environmental racism that befalls adjacent “fence line communities.”
In addition to noxious fumes, oil-based plastic products in whatever shape they take are destined as non-degradable waste. The dirty secret of the plastics industry is that only 10 percent of plastics are ever recycled, leaving the rest to clog streams, rivers, and landfills and wash up on beaches.
Plastics are invariably linked to the oil and gas required to produce them. Here is where intellectual whiplash really starts to wear. A day after the reporting on the nurdle tragedy, the Advocate/Times-Picayune editorial staff criticized a Democratic plan to curtail greenhouse gas emissions as an “economically stupid” move that would wreck Louisiana’s oil and gas sector.
While the number of actual jobs in the sector have been declining due to falling prices and increased automation, their social and environmental costs continue to rise. ProPublica recently reported that Louisiana far out-spills every state in the nation. Not only that, but Louisiana is ironically the single most vulnerable state to sea-level rise and global warming. Louisiana’s response to combating coastal erosion is a highly-touted $50 billion Master Plan to sustain its “Working Coast” of industrial activity. The Master Plan relies heavily on oil and gas royalties to fund restoration projects — which arguably exist to protect the sinking oil and gas infrastructure that contributes to sea-level rise and coastal erosion.
This bears emphasis: Funding for Louisiana’s coastal restoration projects comes directly from royalties received from the very oil and gas production that is destroying the state’s coastline, thus requiring more restoration. The more the oil and gas companies produce, the more they destroy.
Louisiana should instead be imagining a post extractive future. It stands to reason that if any state should embrace green energy, it would be the one most vulnerable to carbon emissions. Louisiana’s marshes are sinking while seas are rising from melting polar ice caps and glaciers caused by rising global temperatures. At the same time, Louisiana’s rivers and streams — like the rest of the world’s oceans — are choking on plastic waste. A system-level examination shows Louisiana is its own worst enemy when it comes to dirty industrial production and environmental vulnerability.
The very pipelines drawing natural gas through Louisiana’s disappearing marshlands feed these petrochemical plants. The fossil fuel industry has no intention of shutting down this secondary market.
Instead of drawing down, the plastics industry is actually scaling up with billions of dollars of proposed projects along our loosely regulated, tax-friendly polluters’ paradise. Yes, the state needs jobs. But not every job is worth its environmental costs, particularly when they are shouldered by marginalized communities.
Even as the world eventually turns away from internal combustion cars, the fossil fuel industry will be aggressively dumping its supply into plastics production, which is a bad bet for Louisiana’s environment and coastal lands. As communities like New Jersey start limiting industrial projects in overburdened communities, operators will seek friendlier regulatory environments.
Louisiana has time and again shown its willingness to look the other way in exchange for dirty jobs. Just consider the nearly 58,000 neglected oil wells that a 2014 state auditor’s report designated as either abandoned or unregulated. Industry lobbyists perversely argue that the growing number of designated “orphaned” wells abandoned by out-of-compliance owners are too expensive to properly plug without maintaining — and boosting support — for the beleaguered oil industry.
We are submerged in oil. When Hurricane Laura crashed through southwest Louisiana at the end of August, it struck 480 “orphaned” wells, in addition to numerous active wells, that left behind miles of observable oil sheen throughout the marshes. That’s in addition to the tons of pollutants legally released into the air by refineries as part of their emergency shutdowns. Now, Hurricane Delta is lashing the same stretch of coast, home to communities still under mandatory evacuation orders from the last hurricane.
We can’t afford to sever the logical connection between fossil fuels and plastics pollution. We can’t preserve our environment and save our coast, while continuing to be the nation’s dumping ground. From nurdles to oil spills, a reckoning is well past due to tally the true costs of industrial extraction in the Bayou State.
A Louisiana native, Ned Randolph teaches environmental communication at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Main image: Dow Chemical’s St. Charles plant in Taft, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. Credit: Roy Luck, CC BY 2.0