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Introducing PetroState

The Bayou Brief launches an investigative project on Big Oil, Gas Giants, and the “Invisible Empire” that controls Louisiana’s economy.

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n 1964, nearly a century after it was founded, the Catholic church in tiny Taft, Louisiana- Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary- moved out of town. Their new location was just three and a half miles down the Mississippi River- in between Hahnville and Flaggville, hamlets of St. Charles Parish and still solidly inside the boundaries of an area now infamously referred to as “Cancer Alley.”   

Three years after Holy Rosary’s departure, Taft- which was named after attorney, news editor, and owner of both the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies, Charles Phelps Taft, brother of the former U.S. President and Chief Justice- lost its post office.

In order to provide a central repository for resources and our investigative reporting on environmental justice and Louisiana’s mercurial, corrupt, and dysfunctional relationship with the energy industry, we are proud to introduce PetroState.

Within the next few weeks, PetroState will also operate as its own stand-alone website, as a special feature of The Bayou Brief.  

We believe, without question, that environmental degradation presents the single largest existential threat to the people of Louisiana, a stark reality that far too few in public office are willing to acknowledge. 

Eight years ago, Steven Mufson of The Washington Post declared Louisiana as “America’s petro-state.”

“Long before the oil spill, the state’s embrace of the petroleum industry cast it under what economists call ‘the resource curse’: the paradox that countries rich in minerals or petroleum tend to grow more slowly and have lower living standards than other nations,” Mufson wrote. “Simply put, Louisiana is the closest thing America has to a petro-state.”

“Instead of blessing Louisiana with prosperity, the oil industry fostered dependency, corruption and an indifference to environmental damage. Our Cajun sheikdom’s oil and gas riches — like those of the Niger Delta, the Orinoco belt in Venezuela and the Iraqi marshes — also stunted its development, leaving it far behind states with fewer natural resources,” Mufson observed.

“Oil riches didn’t create these problems, of course, but it is striking that they didn’t ameliorate them,” he explained. ‘We’ve always been a plantation state,’ said Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane University. ‘What oil and gas did is replace the agricultural plantation culture with an oil and gas plantation culture.'” 

Prof. Houck is right, and 35 miles up the road from Tulane, there is a perfect example. 

TAFT, LOUISIANA


The original location of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Taft, Louisiana

Today, Taft, which had once been home to nearly 700 people and had been built by dairy and sugarcane farmers, is largely a memory, a place that only still appears on maps because no one has the heart to correct the mapmakers. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Taft had a population of zero, but a decade later, the Bureau revealed as astonishing turnaround, though it is almost certainly the result of a more generous reading of the town’s borders.

Taft’s current population, the federal government asserts, is 63, all of whom are white and only three of whom are over 65.

The average age in Taft is around 26. This isn’t a place that one comes to retire.

Over the span of the past half century, Taft has been transformed into a petrochemical dystopia. St. Charles Parish’s website fills in some important details:

The Colonial Dairy opened in 1935 in Taft and was at one point one of the largest in Louisiana. That property was sold in the early 1960s to Hooker Chemical….

Union Carbide built their Taft facility in 1966, and added their Star plant (located on the old Star Plantation site) in 1980. While initial construction was going on, a Star Plantation house was used as Union Carbide’s first office building.

Hooker Chemical (which was bought by Occidental Chemical in 1968 and changed the name officially in 1982) likewise built on the old Colonial Dairy plant site in 1966.

IMC-Argico began in the mid-1960s as American Phosphate, and Witco was established in the laste 1960s on property bought from Carbide. Shell Chemical – Star Plant (now known as Montell Polyolefins) was acquired from Witco in 1977. 

Industry, however, both enriched the parish and depleted Taft for land, transforming an area dominated by sugar cane and dairy farming into one of the highest concentrations of industry for the acreage in the state.

But Dow Chemical dominates the town more than anything else.

An aerial map of Taft, Louisiana

Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary may have moved into a new building in nearby Hahnville, but the old cemetery still sits where it always had.

It’s an eight minute walk between Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Company.


“It retains its cemetery in the original location, virtually surrounded by Dow pipelines,” the parish website explains (emphasis added).



Arguably, no one has depicted the cruel and surreal landscape of Cancer Alley better than the writer and producer Nic Pizzolatto, both in his debut novel Gavelston and, particularly, in the first season of his acclaimed television hit, True Detective.

(Full disclosure: I consider Nic to be a family friend, and his younger brother Nath is The Bayou Brief‘s Sports Editor). 

“I think True Detective is portraying a world where the weak (physically or economically) are lost, ground under by perfidious wheels that lie somewhere behind the visible, wheels powered by greed, perversity, and irrational belief systems, and these lost souls dwell on an exhausted frontier, a fractured coastline beleaguered by industrial pollution and detritus, slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico,” Nic explained in a 2014 interview with BuzzFeed. “There’s a sense here that the apocalypse already happened. And in places like this, where there’s little economy and inadequate education, women and children are the first to suffer, by and large.” 

In his 2001 book Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom, Dr. Brian Black uses another term to characterize the oil fields of rural Pennsylvania: “a sacrificial landscape.” 

“Underlying Black’s analysis of these cultural and environmental transformations is the notion that the meaning of the places we inhabit has increasingly become a product of national forces rather than the organic outgrowth of an intimate, local sense of place,” Prof. Robert Rakoff writes in a review of the book.  

Richard Misrach, Trailer Home and Natural Gas Tanks, Good Hope Street, Norco, Louisiana, 1998, from Petrochemical America.
Trailer Home and Natural Gas Tanks, Good Hope Street, Norco, Louisiana, 1998, from Petrochemical America, photographs by Richard Misrach, Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture 2012)

Huey P. Long, the Kingfish, “launched his political career by waging war on the big oil companies, especially what he called Standard Oil’s ‘invisible empire,'” The Post‘s Mufson reminds us. 

Eventually, Standard Oil was dissolved into nearly three dozen different companies, and, as a result and perhaps ironically, the company’s dissolution made its founder, John D. Rockefeller, the richest man on the planet. 

In truth, the invisible empire never actually went away; it merely took on different names. 

Big Oil is commonly considered as comprising the world’s top six, publicly-traded (and not state-owned) oil and gas companies, the so-called “supermajors.”

According to a June 2018 report by Forbes, those companies include:

  • Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands), valued at $306.5 billion. Shell owns and operates two major facilities in Louisiana, the Geismer Chemical Plant in Ascension Parish and an oil and gas refinery in Convent, Louisiana.   
  • Exxon-Mobil (USA), valued at $344 billion. Exxon is one of Louisiana’s largest private-sector employers, largely in the metro Baton Rouge area, where it owns and operates a major plant.
  • Chevron (USA), valued at $244.1 billion. Chevron owns and operates a manufacturing plant in Belle Chasse, Louisiana and is the majority owner and operator of the Anchor Field, a deepwater drilling area located approximately 140 miles off of the Louisiana coast. 
  • Total (France), valued at $168 billion. Total owns and operates the world’s largest polystyrene plant, which is located in Carville, Louisiana, and it is a significant investor in North Louisiana’s natural gas industry. 
  • BP (UK), valued at $156 billion. Suffice it to say, Louisiana has a complicated relationship with BP. 
  • Philips 66 (USA), valued at $54.9 billion. Phillips owns two major refineries in Louisiana- one in Belle Chasse that processes light crude oil and another in Lake Charles that processes heavy crude oil. 

It may seem remarkable that six of the largest and most profitable companies in the world all have a significant presence in a state that US News and World Report recently ranked as the worst in the entire country. 

But what is more astonishing and much more problematic: For the better part of the past century, our elected officials have routinely- almost pathologically- put the financial interests of the industry above the best interests of the public.

Earlier this week, Louisiana’s state Attorney General, Jeff Landry, argued that he did not have the legal authority to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse against the Catholic Church. Three days before, Landry made a similarly outlandish argument about litigation against negligent oil and gas companies.

Any threat, including misguided lawsuits, that endangers a manufacturing industry employing one in seven Louisiana workers must be opposed,”  he wrote (emphasis added). 

His two positions are entirely consistent with one another, even though they both suggest a profound misunderstanding of the justice system, the rule of law, and- with respect to his comments on opposing “any” thing he perceives to be a threat to a mega-trillion dollar industry, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (specifically Rule 12(b)(6)).  


It is difficult to know how Louisiana could be even more accommodating to the petrochemical industry: We have allowed them to plunder and pillage our resources for generations and pathetically acquiesced as they shipped out their profits to Houston and Dallas and London; we bargained away the future of our coast in exchange for a few thousand jobs, working for them

(Incidentally, industry apologists claim that oil and gas employs more than 300,000 Louisianians- which is where Landry’s talking point about one in seven Louisiana workers comes from. It’s utter nonsense. All told, the entire industry employs approximately 44,000 people in Louisiana, only 8,000 more than the state’s single largest private employer, Wal-Mart).  

Oh, and let’s not forget: We literally let a chemical company build a plant around a 140 year old cemetery, the final resting place of more than 1,500 people. 


A final note about Taft, Louisiana and the legacy of its namesake, Charles Phelps Taft: His grandson David married a woman named Louise Hale Harkness. Louise was the granddaughter of Daniel Harkness. 

Daniel Harkness was one of the founders of Standard Oil, along with the world’s richest man, John D. Rockefeller. 


    

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