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In "The Disappearing Delta," Fault Lines investigates the role of the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana’s disappearing coastline—and examines a new frontier of oil exploration: fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. The film airs on Monday, February 16, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.
Former Councilman Byron Marinovich lives in Plaquemines Parish, one of Louisiana’s largest oil producing regions—and is also an area hardest hit by two separate forces of nature: hurricanes and catastrophic land loss.
Sea level rise and coastal erosion are a pressing concern for the parish, leading Marinovich to spearhead several restoration projects while in office. But those projects are costly, and funds are hard to come by. So Marinovich and his colleagues sued major oil firms in 2013, seeking damages from the industry for its role in accelerating the loss of land.
But Marinovich’s support for the lawsuit led to a backlash. He was defeated in a December runoff election by challenger Nicole Smith Williams, who works for a major natural gas firm that helped fund her campaign.
Fault Lines was there when the election results came in, and spoke to Marinovich about his attempt to stand up to big oil—and the future of the parish his family has lived in since the 1800s. An edited version of the conversation follows:
Why did you support the legal action against the oil companies?
The lawyers came to the parish president. I didn’t really see a downside. I considered everything going on. And the big thing they were hitting us with—just before the oil prices went down, when the prices were up in the $90s—is that they were going to leave the parish because of this lawsuit. And I said, we’re a permit-giving body, you have not met the obligations of your permits—which is correct. So that’s why we’re coming after you and trying to enforce the permit.
So you think the oil companies’ threat to leave wasn’t realistic?
They came and said they’re leaving, and I’m looking at $200 million in infrastructure improvements and 50 new wells you drilled in the past year. And almost all of it is new infrastructure—$86 million on new wells drilled. Don’t tell me you’re tearing down your house when you’re building a swimming pool in your backyard.
What’s the future of the lawsuit?
Looking at the people who got elected, I think it’s probably going to be thrown out. I think they’ll probably have enough votes to throw it out.
I dont know if it’s good or bad. I’ve got some questions about the suit. When we voted on it originally, you gotta understand that it was $111 to $115 a barrel for oil. Now you’re looking at $67 a barrel for oil. (Ed note: Today, the price is at just above $51.) You have to put things in a business light because I am a businessman. When you talk to these companies, they say revenue is down, 37 percent in a month. That is a lot.
Do you think you paid a price for taking on the industry?
I would bet that, as far as losing an election. I don’t necessarily regret it. The lawsuit was a unanimous decision, and I got painted as the poster boy for it. It is what it is, I don't regret any of it. The thing that upset me the most was friends of mine who boycotted my restaurant.
One of the big things coming from a bad thing is the BP money. We’re looking at $1.3 billion in settlement money, and we are hoping it goes to the proper states.
former Plaquemines Parish councilman
Your business suffered?
Oh yes. We had days we’d be off 18 percent. Some days, we’re off up to 60 percent. That kind of bothered me. People that have known me for 30 or 40 years thought I was doing something on purpose to harm them.
You held to a principle of holding companies to account for permit violations. That took a lot of backbone, right?
Yes. We did get a lot of veiled threats, open threats, boycotts, a little bit of everything. I’m not worried, I can handle it. But a lot of people who were involved in it— elected officials and otherwise—they ran for the bushes when they were called to explain. And of course that’s why I got painted as the poster boy for it, because I would explain. I don’t mind talking about what we do, right or wrong.
Something that was thrown at us is that none of the other councils or the state legislature have ever held any of these companies to account before. Why now? Well, somebody’s got to do it. If you’re breaking the law, you’re breaking the law.
You said people of Plaquemines Parish had signed a deal with the devil, in terms of their relationship with oil companies.
We’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them, and it’s always been a very fine line because the monies that come in. Now they’re taking the bulk of it walking out. So maybe that’s the devil part of it. But they do put a lot into the community, maybe not donation-wise but job-wise, spending money—maybe in my restaurant.
We’ve become addicted to that money. We’re talking tens and tens of millions of dollars a year for a parish of only 20,000 people. We are addicted to it, so we have kind of made a deal with the devil, you know?
Not that they’re out there to hurt us on purpose. It’s not like that at all. But we are destroying our coast. They’re not the only reason for it. There’s a bunch of other reasons. But they are part of the reason for it.
What are your concerns with regards to the coastal restoration work?
We’re losing about a football field of land every 30 minutes. We need to try to reverse that in some fashion. There’s so many ways to go about doing that.
One of the big things coming from a bad thing is the BP money is coming in. We’re looking at $1.2, $1.3 billion in settlement money, and we are hoping it goes to the proper states. You’re looking at five states and seven parishes here in Louisiana that were most heavily damaged. We had about 36 to 37 percent of the damage right here in this parish, so rightfully we should get that portion of the money. I would hope they use that money to rebuild some of our coast.
Biggest thing right now, is when we do finally see some monies, I hope we get our fair share, and that the people we just put into office are wise enough to invest it in rebuilding our coast. That’s the most important thing.
Has the oil industry contributed enough to coastal restoration?
No, I don’t think they have. They’ve given a lot, in terms of jobs and paying taxes and all. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of purposeful, environmental bad things. We had the BP spill. It was stupidity and criminal negligence, but it is what it is.
At the same time, I don’t know if we the people, the government, have done enough to protect ourselves either. A lot of people are very apathetic about it. I don’t think the government has come in and set some real rules for it.
You could portray what’s happened to you as the consequence of one man standing up to the industry and having a political career collapse as a result. What’s the lesson?
You can’t fight the railroad. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s an old story here in the U.S. I don’t have any regrets about it. I really dont. I went out with my boots on, if you wanna put it that way. I don’t regret what I did one bit.
If the parish is losing land a football field every 30 minutes, that’s an environmental catastrophe.
And nobody is paying attention. A little oil group was coming in and said everything will be gone in 70 years. I guess that’s all well and good. I’m sure I’ll be gone in 70 years. But I’m glad somebody 70 to 80 years ago didn’t have the same attitude, so I have a place to live. We can’t take that tack. Nobody should take that tack, ever. Never accept the status quo if things are going wrong, no matter what they are.
How real is global warming? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody really knows. I’ve got some really bad feelings about it. I think we have to pay attention to what we’re doing, because we’re losing some very important estuaries and very economically and ecologically diverse areas around the world.
If people don’t pay attention to the land loss, then what’s going to happen 70 years from now?
We’ve already lost a lot historically, culturally. You’ve already seen it. There’s been a lot of flight, people leaving here. I think there’s going to be some really strong effects for the country, economically. Oil production being one of the biggest ones. You knock out 9 percent of the nation’s energy just from this parish, what happens then?