01/29/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Fossil Fuel Fiefdoms

Louisiana and West Virginia have a great deal in common. At the top of the list is that they are both fossil fuel fiefdoms where energy production takes precedence over environmental protection. In many respects, residents of the two states have been reduced to hapless victims of environmental abuse by oil companies in Louisiana and coal companies in West Virginia. Too many people are at the mercy of industry due to its long time domination of local job markets.

It is not just the general population that is under the energy industry's thumb. So are top state political leaders from both major political parties. Their subservience is perpetuated not only by the energy industry's stranglehold on constituents' employment but by hefty campaign contributions. Anti-pollution regulations are on the books, but they have holes, and enforcement has been sporadic, to put it mildly.

When an industry-caused major environmental crisis has occurred, state political leaders have downplayed the event as best they can.

Take the immediate aftermath of the massive 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu sought to minimize the extent of the environmental damage as much as possible. Nor was she alone among the Louisiana political leaders in attempting to put the best face on a disaster whose adverse ecological and public health impacts are being felt to this day.(Fisheries and the coastal environment have not fully recovered while some residents are still exhibiting health effects from exposure to toxic oil residue.)

Try as they may, apologetic politicians cannot obscure industrial activity's instrumental role in eroding Louisiana's wetlands at a rate that would wipe out the resource entirely within two centuries. The state's main spawning grounds for its fisheries would be gone as well as a crucial buffer against hurricanes.

In regards to West Virginia, its political leaders scrambled to absolve the coal industry from any blame for a recent spill contaminating the Elk River, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin portrayed the chemical plant where the leak occurred as the sole culprit even though the polluted runoff had been used to wash coal extracted from nearby mines.

West Virginia politicians are shielding a coal industry that has a lot to answer for. More than one-third of the state's mountain streams have become too polluted to support aquatic (much less human) life due to surface mining waste, and 480 miles of streams have been buried by coal residue.

It should be noted that the unfortunate resemblance between Louisiana and West Virginia doesn't stop with environmental degradation and compromised politicians.

Both states are economically beholden to the fossil fuel industry, yet their citizens have comparatively little to show for it. West Virginia is the second poorest state in the union and Louisiana the sixth. The energy industry's economic bounty appears to be sparingly disbursed.
When it comes to life expectancy, West Virginia and Louisiana share the dubious distinction of being at the bottom of the national totem pole. Poverty and pollution have clearly taken a physical toll.

How do Louisiana and West Virginia break out of their well-entrenched culture of dependency on the fossil fuel industry?

It won't be easy, but an obvious way is to diversify the economy. State officials need to offer tax breaks to attract light industry as well as seek government funds for job training programs. The same tax incentives to relocate should be extended to manufacturers of wind and solar energy equipment. At the same time, every effort should be made to phase in those renewal energy sources as replacements for fossil fuel use.

Both states possess a natural environment conducive to expansion of tourism and commercial agricultural job markets. In addition, the two states in their current condition are perfect laboratories for establishing a network of ecological research centers.

Finally, at the risk of retribution, the public in these two venues must muster the courage to purge a deeply ingrained tradition of submissiveness to polluters. Towards that end, the first order of business would be to find and elect politicians who harbor that same sense of purpose.