Letter from Baton Rouge — From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

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One Monday evening this March, I had a remarkably forthright two-hour conversation with Ginger Sawyer, one of the most powerful lobbyists in Louisiana. As we sat across a table at a TJ Ribs in Baton Rouge, Sawyer filled me in on the oil-and-gas industry’s goals for the 2013 state legislative session. She’d retired the previous year, following a bout with cancer and the death of her longtime partner in a freak accident, but had been called back in on a one-year contract by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in part because the state’s petroleum companies were facing major challenges. For one, Republican governor Bobby Jindal had proposed eliminating Louisiana’s personal and corporate income taxes and replacing the lost revenue by jacking up its sales tax, which Sawyer worried would anger the public. “If that happens, the legislature might close some of the exemptions for the oil-and-gas industry,” she said. “I helped win a lot of those exemptions in the Eighties and Nineties, so I’ve got the institutional knowledge and history.”

An abandoned jack pump in a forest near Jena, Louisiana © Samuel James

An abandoned jack pump in a forest near Jena, Louisiana. Photograph © Samuel James

I’d come to Louisiana to report on another major source of worry for the industry: so-called legacy lawsuits, through which landowners have sued companies for contamination of properties leased to produce oil and gas. By the late 1980s, the major oil firms had largely moved their non-refinery operations offshore, selling their remaining active fields to independent firms. They left behind thousands of sites contaminated by oil, organic pollutants, and other hazardous materials. At particular issue has been a byproduct of the drilling process that the oil companies euphemistically refer to as “produced water” or “brine.” As its name implies, brine, which is produced in vast quantities by both conventional drilling and hydrofracking, contains a great deal of salt — its salinity is up to ten times that of seawater, meaning any storage breaches can greatly alter the chemistry of groundwater and endanger nearby vegetation. Analyses of brine frequently detect traces of benzene, chromium, lead, and other potential carcinogens, as well as radioactive isotopes.

Though they knew the practice to be unsafe, for decades U.S. oil companies stored brine in vast unsealed open pits. Texas barred the use of these pits in 1969 and other states followed suit, but the practice continued in Louisiana until the 1980s. Corporations also poured brine directly into marshlands and coastal waters. According to a 1989 U.S. Minerals Management Service report, oil companies were dumping statewide an estimated 82 million gallons of brine daily. The industry also mishandled waste containing what it calls NORM, naturally occurring radioactive material, and what the Environmental Protection Agency labels TENORM, or technologically enhanced NORM — a term emphasizing the increased radioactivity caused by extraction techniques.

About a decade ago, Louisiana landowners began winning huge judgments against such oil giants as BP, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell, as well as against independents. In one case, ExxonMobil was ordered to pay a $112 million penalty — reduced from the $1 billion originally awarded by a jury — for polluting a thirty-three-acre site near New Orleans. A state appeals court called the company’s behavior “calculated, despicable and reprehensible,” and said it had acted with a “reckless disregard of the health and safety of others.”[1]

[1] Exxon’s case was further undermined by its environmental consultant, Mark Krohn, who testified during cross-examination that he’d received his undergraduate science degree by correspondence, that he’d dropped out of New York State’s maritime academy because he was “spending too much time having too much fun,” and that his certification for the safe transport of radioactive materials had been issued by his own company.

The lawsuits are broadly supported by farm interests, school boards (which manage substantial swaths of polluted land), and environmentalists. Most of these groups have negligible clout, but the big landowners — who are generally Republicans and often major donors to or friends of Jindal’s — are politically formidable, as are their lawyers. “Governor Jindal has received a lot of support from the oil industry,” Sawyer told me. “When he was elected the companies wanted their governor to fix the legacy-lawsuit problem for them. But as the governor matured” — here she arched an eyebrow — “his relationships with individuals on the oil side were superseded by new relationships.” (Jindal, who appears to be positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run, has sought to keep both sides happy.)

Energy companies succeeded in halting legacy lawsuits in Mississippi by getting its legislature to shift the cases from the courts to state regulatory agencies, over which industry exerts enormous leverage. Now they’re close to doing the same in Louisiana. In the past decade, the legislature has approved bills that gave the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — in theory the energy industry’s watchdog, in reality its protector and handmaiden — increased authority to resolve the lawsuits. A team of six oil-industry lobbyists, including Sawyer, put together the most recent such bill and got it passed.

Though she was happy about the victory, Sawyer was worried about a recent Louisiana Supreme Court decision that might require oil companies to restore polluted land to higher standards than the legislature had called for. “That undoes a lot of good we’ve won,” she said. “There’s a legislator who is holding a bill for us in case we need one this session. We’re hoping the Supreme Court will rehear that case, but if it doesn’t, or if the rehearing goes the wrong way, that bill might be introduced.”

Here, I was taken aback by Sawyer’s openness. In Washington, too, legislation routinely originates with lobbyists, but few would publicly claim authorship of a bill, let alone in a conversation with a journalist. Then, after I’d asked for the check, she said, “You don’t look anything like your picture. I thought you were bald.”

Sawyer’s exceptional candor was suddenly explained. She believed I was another Ken Silverstein. A similar mix-up occurred two years ago, when I received an interview request from a TV news producer while I was speaking at a conference of investigative reporters in Johannesburg. On the set, the producer informed me that the interview would be about the upcoming U.N. conference on climate change in Durban — and not, as I’d smugly assumed, my work on oil-industry corruption and the resource curse. “Let’s go through your bio,” she said as the host smiled from a chair ten feet away. “You’re the editor in chief of EnergyBiz Insider, right?” She’d meant to bring in the Ken Silverstein who writes for industry-friendly trade publications (and is notably balder). I was too embarrassed to tell the producer that she had the wrong person, so I mumbled something about my title needing clarification and did my best to bluff my way through an interview about a conference that until moments earlier I hadn’t even known was taking place.

In Baton Rouge, I told Sawyer the truth about her mistake, and her face fell.

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is a former Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

 

is a photographer based in New York City and Lagos.

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