DULAC, La. — In this region so threatened by the BP oil spill, it has often seemed to residents that the only thing worse than losing tens of thousands of seafood industry jobs would be to lose their other major job source: the oil industry.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has called the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling “a second man-made disaster”; fishermen mourn the destruction of their way of life and defend Big Oil in the same breath; environmentalists call for restoring the battered coastline, not changing the national energy policy.
So when Patty Whitney, a community organizer here in Terrebonne Parish, asked a question at a recent conference about the state of the Louisiana coast, it was all she could do to keep her voice from shaking.“We are constantly told, ‘You have to adapt to coastal land loss, you have to adapt because of the oil leak, you have to adapt to the new situation,’” she said. “When is our government going to adapt to new energy sources that aren’t harmful to our environment and the people who depend upon the environment?”
On the stage, the panel of engineersand environmental policy makers looked at one another. “Who would like to take that question?”the moderator asked. The conference was financed by the state and by private donors — including the oil conglomerate ConocoPhillips, one of the region’s biggest landowners.
“You must be very brave,” another attendee, a professor at a local university, told Ms. Whitney during the break. “Or very dumb,” she replied.
Born and raised in Houma, one of a family of 10, Ms. Whitney, 58, has long considered herself a closet radical when it comes to oil. Her mission at the grass-roots interfaith group BISCO is to help the disparate and largely disenfranchised groups in this region — African-Americans, Cajuns, American Indians — develop a political voice.
As such, she has tried to keep her own mostly to herself. But that is not easy for a Southerner with a gift of gab, a self-taught historian and a mother of three who takes umbrage at how the sugar companies,the fur companies and the oil companies have each come to the region and extracted its bounty.
"America needs oil, Patty,” a brother who is an engineer for an oil company told her at a recent family gathering. “Then let them drill,” she retorted. “Let them drill in Yellowstone Park, in the Grand Canyon, in Puget Sound, off Martha’s Vineyard. Let them mess up their own places instead of just drilling in my beautiful Louisiana.”
And the spill, whose scope is still unknown, has prompted snippets of surprising conversations on the subject, even as the Senate on Thursday scrapped plans to take up a major climate change bill. Someone in church heard Ms. Whitney talking about the benefits of wind power the other week and signaled his agreement. Same with a woman in one of her community organizing networks.
"It’s at the point where people would consider talking about it, where before it was close to blasphemy,” Ms. Whitney said. “Me personally, I really and truly think the time is here, that even though it’s radical for this area, the idea of developing an alternative energy policy has come.”