American Coast, Imperiled Energy: Jason P. Theriot’s American Energy, Imperiled Coast

University of Wisconsin–Madison
Published November 17, 2015
Overview 

Eric Nost reviews Jason P. Theriot's American Energy, Imperiled Coast: Oil and Gas Development in Louisiana’s Wetlands (Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

Review

Bohemia Spillway New Distributary, Mardi Gras Pass, March 2012. Photograph by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Courtesy of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
Bohemia Spillway New Distributary, Mardi Gras Pass, March 2012. Photograph by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Courtesy of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

A curious thing happened in Louisiana during Mardi Gras 2011. For the first time in a very long time, the Mississippi River created a new distributary on its own. It breached a levee, and about two thousand cubic feet per second of the Big Muddy has flowed through the crevasse ever since. Given the substantial loss of land in this coastal region over the last eighty years, partly due to flood and navigation control levees restricting the river from layering new sediment and building land in wet areas, conservationists were ecstatic. Given that the breached levee protected the only road to a nearby oil and gas field, the industry and state agencies expressed serious reservations.

Cover of American Energy, Imperiled Coast: Oil and Gas Development in Louisiana's Wetlands

Jason P. Theriot's American Energy, Imperiled Coast chronicles the development of science and policy surrounding the "quiet, slow-moving environmental crisis" (13) of Louisiana's wetlands loss. Theriot traces a history from the discovery of oil in the Chenier Plains in the 1920s and 1930s, to the heyday of canal dredging and pipeline laying throughout coastal wetlands in the 1950s, to the recent expansion and setbacks of offshore extraction. While the book devotes most of its attention to the coast, Theriot asserts broader spatial implications: developments in offshore drilling and wetland science around the world developed in and through the Gulf of Mexico. His account is largely descriptive, with no explicit theoretical structuring. American Energy, Imperiled Coast contextualizes the perspectives of scientists and regulators in the second half of the twentieth century as they assessed industry pipelines, canals, and wells, and issued permits. This emphasis on the intersection of science and policy speaks to ongoing, uncertain legal efforts to hold the oil and gas industries liable for their role in building and maintaining canals that contribute to Louisiana's land loss. Theriot argues that after having long turned a blind eye, state, industry, and environmental leaders are coming to terms with the magnitude of coastal erosion and the need for restoration. But, in suggesting that the "building blocks are now set in place" (219), American Energy, Imperiled Coast fails to address the complexities of coastal restoration illustrated by the Mardi Gras Pass example.

Impact of Salt Water Intrusion, March 25, 2011. Image created by Wikimedia user Hui Tian as part of an assignment for the Wikipedia Ambassador Program. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0. Saltwater intrusion is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers, resulting in diversified habitat loss and land subsidence. Most often, it is caused by ground water pumping from coastal wells, artificial levees, or from the construction of navigation channels or oil field canals that provide conduits for salt water to reach fresh water marshes. Salt water intrusion can also occur due to weather-related storm surges or rising sea levels.
Impact of Salt Water Intrusion, March 25, 2011. Image created by Wikimedia user Hui Tian as part of an assignment for the Wikipedia Ambassador Program. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0. Saltwater intrusion is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers, resulting in diversified habitat loss and land subsidence. Most often, it is caused by ground water pumping from coastal wells, artificial levees, or from the construction of navigation channels or oil field canals that provide conduits for salt water to reach fresh water marshes. Salt water intrusion can also occur due to weather-related storm surges or rising sea levels.

Theriot quickly enmeshes readers in the underlying ecology of Louisiana's ongoing crisis—approximately one football field of land loss per hour.1 In the mid-twentieth century, the hydrocarbon industry excavated canals to lay pipelines and move drilling equipment. These canals facilitated saltwater intrusion into existing freshwater areas, killing off salt-intolerant vegetation. Without vegetation to hold soils in place and exacerbated by wave action from equipment and storm surges in the canals, marsh platforms collapsed into estuaries. When companies dredged canals, they left the spoil on the banks, impounding water, flooding marshes for longer than usual, and drying out lower-lying areas where land subsided further and became increasingly susceptible to rising sea-levels.2

Wetland loss between 1956 and 2008 near Delacroix, Lousiana. Slides from Southeast Lousiana Flood Protection Authority-East's (SLFPAE) January 16, 2014, presentation to the Coastal Planning and Restoration Authority (CPRA). GIF by Eric Nost. Courtesy of Eric Nost, "Much Ado about the Causes of Wetland Loss in Louisiana."
Wetland loss between 1956 and 2008 near Delacroix, Lousiana. Slides from Southeast Lousiana Flood Protection Authority-East's (SLFPAE) January 16, 2014, presentation to the Coastal Planning and Restoration Authority (CPRA). GIF by Eric Nost. Courtesy of Eric Nost, "Much Ado about the Causes of Wetland Loss in Louisiana."

Today, public debate centers on the industry's legal liability for coastal erosion given the lenient rules governing the peak of extraction operations from the 1950s–80s. State regulators were "full and enthusiastic supporters" of the industry.3 Theriot maintains that along with ecologists and industry officials, regulators only gradually realized the extent of land loss and acknowledged the role of oil and gas operations. Nevertheless, he takes note of some landowners affected by well leaks who filed lawsuits against the industry in the early 1930s. In fact, Louisiana started permitting and regulating oil exploration as early as 1939. The discussion in 1953 about how Tennessee Gas's proposed "Muskrat Line" natural gas pipeline would impact oyster beds foreshadowed today's scientific understanding (and echoed what oystermen already knew to be true). As James McConnell of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission put it, "when currents are changed by these canals and dredgings are placed along the sides of the canal, in many cases currents are stopped entirely … causing ... changes in the ecology of a given area" (54). While the state took relatively little action to stem wetland degradation until the 1970s, concern among some public officials, oystermen, and other coastal residents regarding impacts of oil and gas operations persisted.

BP Oil Spill Protest NOLA Royalties Now, New Orleans, Louisiana, May 30, 2010. Photograph by Flickr user Infrogmation. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.
BP Oil Spill Protest NOLA Royalties Now, New Orleans, Louisiana, May 30, 2010. Photograph by Flickr user Infrogmation. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

This industrial history with its environmental and legal battles undergirds Theriot's exploration of Louisiana's wetland landscape. Much recent scholarship on the Louisiana coast, including Richard Misrach and Kate Orff's excellent Petrochemical America, depicts the grim outcomes of the collision between oil and gas extraction and Louisiana people.4 Theriot takes a different tack, drawing on company records, trade magazines, and oral histories to illustrate the early encounters between extractive industries and coastal residents. He explains how the industry's presence in the area came to be "embraced by the vast majority of people in south Louisiana," (40) echoing Flaherty's 1948 Louisiana Story. The film portrays a Cajun family won over by a nearby drilling operation despite the ecological and cultural changes the growing industry signaled. In the earliest rounds of oil exploration in the 1920s and 1930s, many southern Louisianans, especially French-speaking Cajuns, were skeptical of oil companies, perceiving them as outsiders who brought in a new workforce of "les maudits Texiens (damn Texans)" (10). They were worried too about the long-term sustainability of the industry and their place in it. One fishermen asked, "So when oil's gone, what're we going to do for a living then?" (55). Some local residents, however, leveraged their insider position to serve as intermediaries between industry and those whose property and livelihoods were in its way. When Tennessee Gas began to lay the Muskrat Line in 1955, it struggled to secure permission from landowners along the route. Judge Leander Perez, arch-segregationist political boss of Plaquemines Parish, was won over after Dailey Berard, a Tennessee Gas manager with local roots, discovered their shared interest in regional cattle breeds. Over time, oil and gas firms mobilized middlemen like Berard to try to assuage fishermen and trappers who were worried about the effects of canal dredging and hydrocarbon extraction on their coast-based livelihoods. Financial gains shaped many residents' view of the industry, but only after this initial accommodation, Theriot writes. He celebrates how oil and gas operations provided high-paying jobs and increased the market value of many areas of the coast (39–40). Theriot brackets how firms have utilized lobbying to benefit from corruption and abetment in state government and greatly profit at the direct expense of the public.5

Pipeline from Southwest to Atlantic Coast, 1944. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USW4- 029616.

Pipeline from Southwest to Atlantic Coast, 1944. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USW4- 029616.

Without losing sight of technical details, Theriot emphasizes connections between industry and individuals by engaging human actors. He describes the innovations driving oil and gas production and transport while attending to the daily lives of those building the pipeline and dredging canals. This approach reads against the grain of what could be called the "unruly nature" argument, which characterizes the swampy Louisiana coast as persistently upending human efforts to control it. From Mark Twain to John McPhee, popular authors have portrayed the Mississippi River as a trickster, defying the expectations and hopes of those working and living on the Gulf Coast.6 In contrast, Theriot details how hydrocarbon firms and their workers navigated the messy terrain of the Louisiana coast. At first, they attempted to deploy the familiar equipment used in dry land environments. Eventually, the industry ditched its ill-suited land-based equipment and acquired submersible barges as drilling platforms and helicopters for pipeline surveying. As one trade magazine explained the dredging of canals through difficult marsh, "the very terrain which presents the problems, however, also contributes to the transportation solution" (20). What stands out is not the unruliness of wetlands as workers find the landscape shifting beneath their feet overnight, nor a tragic triumph over nature. Instead, Theriot focuses on how the fluid landscape afforded and constrained different kinds of innovations, and how the oil and gas industry managed to adequately adapt itself to new and changing environments.7

American Energy explains the Gulf Coast through another set of geographical dilemmas: between site and situation8 and between region and nation.9 In learning about the fragility of coastal marshes and their importance in the history of extracting and transporting fossil fuels, readers might recall Peirce Lewis's characterization of New Orleans as "an inevitable city on an impossible site."10 Lewis contends that New Orleans has to exist given its prime location at the confluence of different navigation corridors, despite the fluidity and vulnerability of its terrain. Similarly, Theriot's account suggests that what constitutes a site's situatedness—its economic linkages to other places—is always relative and embedded in a historical and social context. As new and larger oil fields have opened up elsewhere, the Gulf Coast's situation has shifted to face global realities. Theriot frames land loss as a national problem. The comma in the book's title American Coast, Imperiled Energy does more than its fair share of work, summarizing the argument in the space of a breath: "Energy supplies from the Gulf benefited the entire nation, but the environmental impacts of these activities were felt only locally" (221). Theriot documents how Louisianans have struggled to make land loss nationally visible, with members of Congress fighting for a share of federal oil royalties—increasingly they have been successful despite strong protest, essentially suggesting the Gulf should fend for itself—and economists highlighting the internationally significant monetary values of the Coast's ecosystems.11

New Orleans Oil Refinery, New Orleans, Louisiana, October 14, 2010. Photograph by Flickr user Steve Selwood. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
New Orleans Oil Refinery, New Orleans, Louisiana, October 14, 2010. Photograph by Flickr user Steve Selwood. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

It is not simply the Coast that is imperiled. Theriot demonstrates how the federal government, some wetland advocates, and the oil and gas industry, have realized that coastal erosion not only threatens wetlands, wildlife, and people, but "businesses, the economy, and national energy security" (13). He opens American Energy insisting that "wetlands are also vital to America's energy needs. They anchor the pipeline infrastructure in place, protect the region's oil and gas assets from the natural elements, and provide a conduit through which flows oil and gas supplies" (1–2).

This line of argument raises a critical question that Theriot sidesteps: to what extent is coastal restoration premised on protecting the hydrocarbon industry and oil and gas firms? What happens when coastal restoration threatens industry survival? When the Mississippi breached its levee at Mardi Gras Pass, the default solution was to seal the breach and secure the neighboring oil and gas facilities, despite the possibility the crevasse could serve as a "free" sediment diversion. Insidiously, a major cause of land loss—the industry's crisscrossing landscape of canals and its contribution to climate change and rising sea levels—is what calls forth coastal restoration and what restoration is targeted toward.

New Orleans, Louisiana, as seen from NASA's International Space Station, November 18, 2006. Photograph by Expedition 14 crewmember. Courtesy of Flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.
New Orleans, Louisiana, as seen from NASA's International Space Station, November 18, 2006. Photograph by Expedition 14 crewmember. Courtesy of Flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

That an industry significantly responsible for wetland loss might be one of restoration's biggest beneficiaries, as well as its arbiter of success, is something that American Energy only tangentially engages. The fine-grained approach Theriot offers—attending to individual regulators, ecologists, and industry personnel—demonstrates the ongoing crisis of land loss, with local and global resonances and complicated, never certain trajectories. But the future Theriot wants to foretell is self-fulfilling and contradictory: the accumulation of knowledge about wetland loss and the growth of an industry-supported consensus for restoration suggests that a "sustainable energy coast" (209) is just over the horizon. Energy infrastructure and coastal protection have long proven to be at odds and subject to public debate, politicization, corruption, and lawsuits. While Mardi Gras Pass suggests the possibility of a watershed moment in coastal restoration, American Energy rarely confronts the industry's political position that demands the crevasse be closed. 12 As Theriot heralds a sustainable energy coast, the question remains: Whom might such a coast serve, and, at what cost?

About the Author

Eric Nost is a doctoral student in the department of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research describes how technology—from interactive webmaps to sediment diversions and environmental modeling tools—shapes how regulators, non-profit conservationist groups, and the private sector design and evaluate ecological restoration and climate adaptation projects.

  • 1. Nathaniel Rich, "The most ambitious environmental lawsuit ever," New York Times Magazine, October 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/10/02/magazine/mag-oil-lawsuit.html.
  • 2. R. Eugene Turner, "Wetland Loss in the Northern Gulf of Mexico: Multiple Working Hypotheses," Estuaries 20, no. 1 (1997): 1–13.
  • 3. Haigler (Dusty) Pate, "Quantifying and Prioritizing Opportunities for Canal Backfilling in Louisiana" (Masters thesis, Duke University, 2014), 55. See also Sue Sturgis, "Looting Louisiana: How the Jindal administration is helping Big Oil rip off a cash-strapped state," Southern Studies, May 7, 2015, http://www.southernstudies.org/2015/05/looting-louisiana-how-the-jindal-administration-is.html. Even some oil and gas firms thought themselves to be under-regulated: "A 1979 Shell memo acknowledged that its waste pits flagrantly violated numerous federal and state environmental rules but blamed 'slackness' on the part of state enforcement agencies for creating 'a mood of operational indifference.'" Ken Silverstein, "Dirty South: The foul legacy of Louisiana oil," Harper's, November 2013, 4.
  • 4. Gwen Ottinger, "Peopling Petrochemical America: A Review," Southern Spaces, November 26, 2013, http://southernspaces.org/2013/petrochemical-america-petrochemical-addiction#ottinger.
  • 5. See Sturgiss, "Looting Louisiana"; Silverstein, "Dirty South"; "Looting Louisiana: A Primer," YouTube video, 13:27, posted by Mike Stagg, May 2, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r8mZIhEg4s&feature=youtu.be; and Richard Thompson, "Legislative Auditor: Louisiana missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars from oil and gas incentive," The New Orleans Advocate, August 25, 2015.
  • 6. Similarly, some authors depict the swampy coast as harboring a terrible evil. For instance, H.P. Lovecraft's short story "The Call of Cthulhu," first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928.
  • 7. See also, Adam Mandelman, "Wetlands as Borderlands: Where Land and Water Meet," Porous Places blog, June 1, 2012, http://www.adammandelman.net/2012/06/01/borderlands.
  • 8. See Peirce Lewis, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape (Chicago: Center for American Places, 2003); Craig Colten, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wrestling New Orleans from Nature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006); Richard Campanella, Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: University of Louisiana, 2008); and Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).
  • 9. There is an extensive literature exploring the South as systemically "underdeveloped" in relation to the rest of the country. See Mona Domosh, "Practising Development at Home: Race, Gender, and the 'Development' of the American South," Antipode 47, no. 4 (2015): 915–941.
  • 10. Lewis, New Orleans.
  • 11. David Batker, S. Mack, F. Sklar, W. Nuttle, M. Kelly, and A.M. Freeman, "The Importance of the Mississippi Delta Restoration on the Local and National Economies," in Perspectives on the Restoration of the Mississippi Delta: The Once and Future Delta, eds. J.W. Day, G.P. Kemp, A.M. Freeman, and D. P. Muth (New York: Springer, 2014), 141–153.
  • 12. A political position which derives in part what the US Environmental Protection Agency called "a culture in which [the Department of Natural Resources] is expected to protect industry." Silverstein, "Dirty South," 54.
doi:10.18737/M71C8P
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