Late last month, the Public Affairs Research Council held its annual conference in Baton Rouge and hosted its usual panel discussion on Louisiana politics. When the developing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico came up, Robert Travis Scott, capitol bureau chief for The Times-Picayune, didn't beat around the bush. "The oil has reached the edge of Louisiana's coast," he said, "and I can tell you that the oil has reached the State Capitol as a political issue."
Scott's observation was prescient. Democratic lawmakers later complained that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal should not have allowed the state's oil spill response office to be moved out of the executive branch because it added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Several others coalesced behind a nonbinding resolution criticizing Jindal for his response time. That measure came from Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, who's running for Congress.
That was the easy stuff. Lawmakers had a real opportunity to weigh in last Thursday when the House Natural Resources Committee conducted a hearing on the spill and BP sent its top brass to answer questions about the disaster. Some lawmakers went out of their way to thank BP for its past investments in coastal communities, while others pulled punches that should have been body blows.
"At what point in this catastrophe did you or your company realize that you were overwhelmed by the circumstance?" asked Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, normally a solitary voice of wrath in a sea of complacency.
David Rainey, BP's vice president of Gulf exploration, answered, "I don't think at this point we are overwhelmed." That came less than a week after the company's initial estimate of 1,000 spilled barrels per day became 5,000. "We are determined to make this the best oil spill response the planet has ever seen," he said.
A few in the audience let out a collective sigh. Jones had no follow-up.
Rep. Reed Henderson, D-Chalmette, took a more skeptical view. As Rainey waxed poetic, the southern edges of Reed's district were seeing the byproduct of the explosion firsthand. Containment booms that BP had promised hadn't arrived, Henderson said, and constituents were having problems filing claims.
When Rainey answered that BP intended to address the problems immediately, Henderson shot back: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Rainey was vague on several other fronts, including the idea of using a gigantic concrete dome to cover part of the leak and channel the captured oil to the surface. "This technique has been successfully applied in shallower waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but it has not been applied in deeper waters," he said. "It will be a technically challenging operation." Workers began putting the dome in place late last week.
He also was vague about the idea of using chemicals to break up and dissolve the crude. Is it even safe? "It's a soap-like product. It's a detergent," Rainey said in quick succession, as if searching for the right description. "I don't know the details of it, but I do know that a lot of work has been done evaluating the toxicity and the EPA believes this is the right approach to fighting the spill." Planes were dispersing the chemicals last week.
As for Jindal's administration, Col. Michael Edmonson, superintendent of state police, said his team was already activated because of a natural gas leak in north Louisiana a day before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Karolien Debusschere, deputy coordinator of the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator's Office, added that the state's response plan changes on a daily basis, as it should.
As of last week, however, that plan was crafted without some of the required information from BP. "The state says they don't have a copy of the boom plan," committee chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, told Rainey — twice.
And that brings us back to Scott, who quipped during PAR's gathering, "We don't have FEMA this time. We have BP."
Unlike Hurricane Katrina, state officials hit the ground running on this disaster, thanks in part to the explosion happening during a legislative session. But, as was the case with Katrina, Louisiana citizens are beginning to get a bigger picture of the fiasco with each passing day.
Soon enough, citizen-driven reaction could put a new twist on the notion of crude politics. "We owe them a clean-up and a reason," Jones said at the end of his subdued rant, "not a whitewash."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.