Washington — To the proverbial visitor from Mars, it might seem reasonable to expect Louisiana’s elected officials to take a tough line on offshore oil drilling, to stand vigilant watch against threats to the state’s fragile coastline and to harbor deep skepticism or even hostility toward the offshore energy industry.
After all, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010 occurred fewer than 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers. The explosion triggered the largest accidental oil spill in the world — visible from space, if not Mars itself — resulting in what is considered the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States. The spill took an enormous toll on marine life and devastated Louisiana’s fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Investigations revealed negligence and malfeasance contributed to the disaster, and oil company officials pleaded guilty to a slew of criminal charges.
But as the Martian visitor would discover, the ways of the earthlings can be puzzling indeed.
Consider U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican from Jefferson. On April 20, the fifth anniversary of the explosion, he issued a statement that “our thoughts go out to the loved ones of the 11 people who lost their lives during the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” which, he said, “also unleashed an environmental tragedy that is still impacting Louisiana and its people today.”
Nothing there to raise the eyebrows of the visiting extraterrestrial, if it has any eyebrows at all. Then, in an opinion piece published that day in The Advocate, Scalise addressed the oil industry that was responsible for the disaster — offering not condemnation but praise.
“Since 2010’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy, the oil and gas industry has advanced standards for safety systems, well integrity, blowout preventers and communication among companies,” he wrote. “The industry realized it had a problem and took proactive steps to increase safety standards.”
Maybe that’s why he said “this tragedy has made us stronger.”
Scalise also wrote — in case there was any doubt — “I am a proud advocate of offshore energy production.” So, too, apparently, are a couple of other Louisiana Republicans, U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and David Vitter.
In May, Cassidy introduced the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act of 2015, with Vitter as a co-sponsor. The bill would, among other things, increase energy production in the Gulf by ending in 2017 a moratorium on drilling within 125 miles of the Florida Panhandle (and within 235 miles of Tampa Bay), now scheduled to expire in 2022. Cassidy’s bill would shrink the drilling-free zone to 50 miles off the Florida coast.
“Developing oil and natural gas resources in the Gulf of Mexico could create more than 200,000 jobs, add more than $18 billion per year to the U.S. economy and strengthen our national security,” Cassidy said in a statement announcing the filing of the bill. “What is there to oppose? Time for everyone to get on board.”
But his plea fell on deaf ears among some members of Congress — particularly several from Florida.
“Florida is under siege,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a statement of his own on the Cassidy bill. “At some point, folks need to ignore Big Oil’s greed and simply do what’s right.”
Nelson has filed a counterproposal to extend the existing moratorium to 2027. He’s been joined in that effort by members of the U.S. House delegation from Florida, including at least two Republicans. One of those Florida Republicans, David Jolly, specifically referred to Deepwater Horizon in expressing his support for lengthening the moratorium.
This mystifies Cassidy.
“Families across the nation, including in Florida, would hold jobs with better wages and better benefits that are created by expanding offshore energy production,” he said in a follow-up statement. “I don’t understand why anyone would deny Floridians, or anyone else, access to these jobs.”
It’s jobs that help explain the dispute — or, maybe more accurately, the businesses that include those jobs and the influence those businesses exert in each state’s politics. What the energy industry is to Louisiana — the mainstay of the economy — tourism is to Florida, and its oil-free Gulf Coast beaches are a popular draw.
How different the world might be if Florida instead of Louisiana were awash in oil and gas, and if spring breakers flocked to Grand Isle instead of Panama City — although possibly no less confusing to a visitor from Mars.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.