By Jessica Otis…
I originally planned to stay in Dallas for J-term, but when the class I was enrolled in was canceled, I made a swift decision to take Professor Nina Flournoy’s class, “Environmental Communication — Lessons from the BP Oil Spill.” I wasn’t sure what to expect, but since returning from our nine-day trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, I can accurately say that the course title doesn’t do the class justice. I think the students in our class would all agree that we learned more than we signed up for. How many people can honestly say that?
As we began talking to various people involved with the BP Oil Spill, issues began emerging that no one had previously considered. Repeatedly our speakers commented that they had been interviewed by reporters about the details of the spill. Our class, however, was the first to ask them what it was like for them to communicate information to the public during this crisis. We witnessed anger, fear, frustration, laughter, and even tears. We knew that the BP Oil Spill had caused harm to the Gulf coast, but we had no idea about the complexity of the issues.
Because of my interest in policy, I was curious to learn about the government involvement and the need for legislation. Speakers often raised the issue of offshore drilling, claims, and the need for new, stricter legislation to address the ongoing devastation to the coast of Louisiana. Their rational was eye-opening.
I was surprised to learn that despite the drilling on land and in shallow waters, Louisiana doesn’t make a profit on oil from offshore drilling, as in BP’s Deepwater Horizon. According to Andrea Taylor and Drew Banter from the Louisiana Governor’s office of Coastal Activities, Louisiana makes a percentage of profits from oil found on land and in shallow waters, but outdated legislation in Congress prevents the state from benefiting from offshore drilling oil. Before this trip, I thought that people from Louisiana and the Gulf-Coast states were upset by the oil and against drilling in their states. Despite my belief, the oil industry is actually a valued entity in the economy and culture of the region. Not only does the industry provide numerous jobs, but a portion of the profits also supposedly goes towards restoring the wetlands and the environment. By imposing a moratorium on offshore drilling, the government is depriving Louisiana of much needed revenue. Without a change in policy, the coastal state will continue being robbed of the money they deserve.
BP and the government have remained suspiciously quiet throughout the entire fiasco, but candid discussions with locals like Gary Fiala gave us personal insite and helped clear up some of our confusion. Fiala, who has lived in Gulf Shores, Alabama for nearly 30 years, owns Gulf Coast Elevator and has brothers who work on oil rigs. “I blame the EPA.” According to Fiala, BP decided to drill offshore in deep waters because the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that drilling in shallower waters would be more environmentally unsound. Offshore drilling, however, makes drilling more dangerous and is one of the reasons why it was near impossible to cap the BP well when it exploded in April of this year. Despite claims by locals, and even statements made by officials, no one is completely certain of the government’s involvement in the BP Oil Spill.
Of all the confusion and ambiguity, the claims process tops the list. After numerous interviews and hours of discussion by experts, it is still unclear as to who received money from BP and for how much. “The claims process was so convoluted,” said Linda Whitlock, President and CEO of Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce. Whitlock went on to explain cases where waitresses made claims to BP for a few thousand dollars, but received checks up to forty to sixty thousand dollars, while the claims made by the restaurant they worked for were denied and they received nothing. Checks and letters of denial were sent with no reasoning or explanation. New policy would ensure that the fisherman, the shrimpers, the oyster harvesters, the casinos, the restaurants and their staff, and all other affected groups of people receive the correct amount of money. Whitlock explained that BP repeated “we will make you whole” continuously throughout the fiasco. The community of Gulf Shores was confused as to what it meant, but BP has yet to clarify the meaning of their ambiguous phrase. If there is any truth behind BP’s claim to make the community “whole,” then legislative changes should be essential.
We have met with several non-profits during our visit that are making a difference and helping with issues such as the environment, the economy, wildlife, and the government. From what I have observed over this past week, the people of the Gulf Coast region need make sure that new policies pass. These states must have a consistently strong presence on the Hill for any new laws to pass. Senators and Representatives must be aware of the significance of these issues in order to be heard. Lobbyists and advocates should, in my opinion, work full-time on the Hill to promote the cause and gain advancement of such laws. Modernized legislation is imperative and essential for the recovery of the Louisiana economy, environment, and overall image.