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Trapped?

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The residents of coastal Louisiana are trapped between a proverbial rock and a hard place. They bemoan the environmental damage inflicted by the BP oil spill, yet in the next breath insist that the drilling which is severely jeopardizing their way of life must continue.

Conflicted Louisianans condemn the Obama Administration for placing a moratorium on deep water offshore drilling while the cause of the disastrous BP blowout is under investigation. Coastal dwellers appear willing to risk a repeat performance rather than have the region's largest employer shut down even temporarily.

It's a display of desperation by people who work for the oil industry or have family members who do. They are joined in their opposition to the six month moratorium by Louisiana fishermen. Despite their favorite haunts having been befouled and declared indefinitely off-limits to commercial harvesting, many of the fishermen also work for the oil companies or have relatives holding those jobs. No one wants to impede an industry whose monetary contribution to the local economy currently exceeds that of fisheries.

In essence, the citizens of coastal Louisiana and the fate of their surroundings are being held hostage by the need to earn a livelihood.

How did it come to this? More than 70 years ago, Louisiana entered a pact with an industry that produces a vital but highly toxic and potentially environmentally destructive product. In exchange for widespread employment and steady wages, the state gave the oil industry virtually free rein in operating along the coast.

While Louisianans may be distraught about the havoc that oil is currently wreaking on their wetlands, their coastline has been eaten away for the last seven decades by energy companies' activity with relatively little fanfare. That's because it's easy to enter a state of denial when the wetland destruction is incremental as a result of industrial dredging and channelization that are tied into job production. (Approximately 10,000 acres are lost annually, primarily from industrial-precipitated salt water intrusion). Even were there no BP spill, a third of Louisiana's remaining coastal wetlands will be gone by 2050 and all will vanish in 200 years at the recent net annual rate of loss, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Is there any way out of this Faustian bargain in which wetlands, fisheries and other renewable natural resources are being decimated to extract a one-time use commodity?

There is one scenario that comes to mind. While a drilling moratorium is in place, compel BP to pay all the out of work oil employees and fishermen to keep the petroleum residues away from the mainland and to clean up the oil when artificial barriers are breached. Begin a crash program to attract alternative energy development and the multitude of jobs it would bring to Louisiana. Politicians should commence doing what they should have done long ago (and probably would have if they weren't so beholden to the oil industry). Seek start-up subsidies for windmill and solar manufacturing facilities. Research and development of biomass fuels and co-generation should be encouraged.

It won't happen overnight, but the day must come in Louisiana when it's possible for people to walk away from the oil industry and not look back.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, due for release at the end of the summer.

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