On the eastern edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, the brown water of the Williams Canal was barely deep enough for a canoe, the channel narrow and full of beaver-chewed sticks. Animal droppings full of crawfish shells dotted the mud banks, which were overgrown with brambles that stuck to my clothes. From the stern of the canoe, set down so low, it was nearly impossible to see past the tall grasses on the ridges and get a bigger picture of the land. The Williams Canal is a tiny cut in the 1.2 million acres of wilderness that is the Atchafalaya Basin. The floodway, stuck in the middle of the state, could fit 82 islands the size of Manhattan within its levees. The water in its complex tangle of channels can move in two different directions, depending on the day. It is the largest river swamp in the United States—beautiful, confusing, and heavily altered.
I walked through the woods about a mile beyond the canal and found one of the iconic cypress swamps that evoke the greatness of the Atchafalaya Basin. They grow in knee-deep still water alongside dozens of orange and yellow-tipped PVC pipes that warn of underground pipelines already buried in the mud. Driving back through the sugarcane fields, past the hazy Motiva refinery in Donaldsonville, it was hard to imagine how one more pipeline could do any more damage to the landscape.
The Williams Canal, which cuts an east-west line through St. Martin Parish, is the future path of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), is trying to secure permits to lay the 163-mile pipeline from the Texas border across the Atchafalaya Basin to the Mississippi River at St. James. The northernmost source of Bayou Bridge would be the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Louisiana is a place where environmental ruin has long been considered a given and the very footprint of the state has been deflated by 2,000 miles of coastal erosion. Gone are the ancient cypress of an un-logged Atchafalaya and many of the species that inhabited them (ivory-billed woodpecker, Florida panther, red wolf). Three times more pollution is released here (1,800 pounds per square mile per year) than the rest of the country, and, complicating things further, the state budget dips into the red as it subsidizes the corporations who produce it ($300 million as of January).
Chris John, the president of Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, helps to bind the interests of the state and 80 oil and gas related companies, including ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and ConocoPhillips. At a public hearing on Bayou Bridge this past January, the former US congressman and state legislator said, “Louisiana is a pro-energy state… To say that the pipeline industry and Louisiana are interchangeable is certainly an understatement.” Sitting behind him was a sometimes-raucous crowd of 500, which seemed to surprise him. It is rare for a pipeline project in Louisiana to generate a public hearing, and it is even more rare for these hearings to generate attention. “I think that the only difference between this project and the others of the countless projects that are approved on a yearly basis is the politics and certainly the pageantry,” he said.
It was clear from John’s testimony and the speakers who followed that the effects of the Standing Rock resistance are being felt in Louisiana, and scrutiny of the industry’s legacy here has resulted.
The oil and gas infrastructure that already exists under the Williams Canal is difficult to trace. The pipelines are underground; their origins, content, destination, and potential risks anonymous. But the fact that Bayou Bridge would be the direct end point of the Dakota Access Pipeline places it very clearly among the tangle of pipelines, refineries, and chemical plants that dominate Louisiana and connect it to the global hydrocarbon market.
Seventy-one-year-old Andrea Kilchrist said at the meeting that her property’s flood risk and insurance would rise with the pipeline’s construction. The New Iberia native’s testimony then shifted to a gruesome account of crackdowns by law enforcement against hundreds protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which she witnessed in October. “They were packed so tightly that they couldn’t move,” she said of the water protectors at Standing Rock. “They were sprayed with mace and tear gas, and they couldn’t turn away so they vomited on each other and urinated on themselves.” As her allotted three minutes wound down, she said, “I hate pain. I’m afraid of pain and broken bones. But on that first day, if y’all give that permit, I will be sitting in front of the bulldozer.”
Several speakers scrutinized Energy Transfer Partners for its role at Standing Rock and its reliability as a company (Sunoco Logistics, a subsidiary of ETP, which will operate the pipeline, spills more crude than any of its competitors, according to a Reuters analysis). But testimony against the project focused as much on past damages by the industry as future risk from a new pipeline. Jody Meche is a commercial fisherman from the town of Henderson, which sits on the western edge of the Atchafalaya Basin. He was angry about existing damage from pipelines, which “have crippled our ability to make a living as commercial crawfishermen,” Meche said. “We all need [the oil] and we need the jobs,” Meche continued, “but the amount of money that these people make on that oil and gas transported through these pipelines, there is no reason that we should have crippled our environment the way it has been crippled over the past decades.”
At issue for Meche are spoil banks. The ridges that kept me from seeing past the Williams Canal, for instance, were piled up when the canal was dug and never filled back in. Those elevated spoil banks keep water from freely flowing through the swamps, which can lead to stagnant water, low-oxygen areas, fish kills, and sediment pile up. According to permitting requirements, companies must fill those canals after construction, but few in the Basin have.
Just a few miles north of the Williams Canal, Energy Transfer Partners owns the Florida Gas Transmission Co. Pipeline, which, according to Atchafalaya Basinkeeper Dean Wilson, is in violation of its permits and has compromised fisheries in the area. Enforcement of the permits in the Atchafalaya falls on the Army Corps of Engineers, yet, Wilson said, “The Corps do not have a single person to review permits for compliance and regulatory, nor do they have a boat for monitoring.”
Louisiana is a place where environmental ruin has long been considered a given and the very footprint of the state has been deflated by 2,000 miles of coastal erosion.
It’s a slow change but Meche (the commercial fisherman from Henderson) can easily see it. He told me that 25 years ago, he could fish the cypress stumps of Tin Can Lake for sac-a- lait when the river gauge was at six feet. Today, he said, the gauge can be at twelve feet and he can’t get his boat into the area. A 2010 report by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries showed wild crawfish landings on a slow, steady decline. Between 1988 and 1998, commercial landings ranged from 20 to 50 million pounds each year. Between 2002 and 2008, that range decreased to between 1 and 16 million pounds. Commercial crawfishing is not impossible, Meche said, but it’s getting more difficult.
“We’re losing the culture I come from,” he said, “They want to talk about no endangered species? Look no further,” he said in response to Energy Transfer Partners’ claim that no species were threatened by the proposed pipeline.
Two days before I spoke to him, Meche had been checking his crawfish traps and realized that the weather would be ideal for frog hunting that night. So later on, he and his wife shoved off into the dark swamp and came back in under three hours with 63 bullfrogs. “Who else can say they can do that?” he said. His moorings lie somewhere in the swamps of the Basin, where his father was born on a houseboat. Meche said he gave most of the frog legs to the lawyer who represents the Louisiana Crawfish Producers’ Association-West, which has fought pipeline activity for two decades. So while his resistance is not a battle against the ideology of fossil fuels—“I’m not some big green environmentalist,” he reiterated—it is in many ways a battle for survival against a disregard for the ecology that sustains his livelihood. When I asked Meche why he fights, he thought for a moment and said, “To protect what God left us. If you keep crapping on your home, pretty soon you’re not gonna have a home to live in and survive in anymore. Even animals know to take care of where they sleep and where they live and where they survive better than ourselves.”
The people who spoke in favor of the pipeline cast opponents as out-of-state activists who are out of touch with their own energy consumption. Business lawyer Brigham McCown of Southlake, Texas said, “Wishing for something to be true doesn’t make it so.” He was echoed by former Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who drew the ire of opponents both in Baton Rouge and in a basketball gym in the town of Napoleonville, where state officials held a second public hearing. Landrieu admitted that she is being paid to represent ETP.
Landrieu said that millions of barrels of oil already flow through the country, and pipelines are the safest way to move it (A ConocoPhillips representative said pipelines were 4.5 times safer than barge, truck, or rail). “Nobody is going to walk up to this mic and say that every plane—many people on both sides travelled by air to get to this hearing—is going to have to be grounded. So the issue before us is how to do this as rationally as possible.” Landrieu drew the ire of opponents in Baton Rouge, who yelled, “You used to work for us!” In the Napoleonville gym, protesters yelled and beat on the bleachers, halting Landrieu’s testimony until moderators could quiet the crowd. Less than a month after that testimony, a Phillips 66 natural gas pipeline exploded in St. Charles Parish, killing one worker and calling into question the safety of chemical pipelines.
The effects of the Standing Rock resistance are being felt in Louisiana, and scrutiny of the industry’s legacy here has resulted.
Ten thousand feet beneath the buttes of the Missouri Plateau in North Dakota, The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Bakken shale formation contains 7.4 billion barrels of oil, made newly available by the technology of hydraulic fracturing, i.e. fracking. DAPL would send the oil through Illinois to Texas, half a million barrels per day. With Bayou Bridge, ETP would like the option of piping the oil east under the Atchafalaya, through the Williams Canal, and out to St. James, where it can be sold to the 167 chemical companies and refineries along the Mississippi that make gasoline, plastic pellets, neoprene, styrofoam, paint, jet fuel, propane, diesel, vinyl, and fertilizer.
While ETP has said that the project will help achieve U.S. energy independence in the service of national security, its investor materials say that the company is “exceptionally well-positioned to capitalize on U.S. energy exports.” In 2015, the U.S. Congress, led by Republican Representative (and Majority Whip) Steve Scalise of Metairie, quietly lifted the crude oil export ban. Louisiana is responsible for exporting up to 31% of the nation’s crude oil.
The Bakken Shale formation began taking shape when the Appalachian Mountains shot up to their highest and most jagged peaks. Beside it, a massive network of coral reefs fed an inland sea all the way up to Canada. After a mass extinction event and 300 million years of these sea creatures’ entombment, oil was made. By comparison, it only took 7,000 years for the Mississippi River to creep its way out into the Gulf of Mexico, spreading silt like a loose firehose from Lafayette to Venetian Isles.
Bayou Lafourche, which runs a few hundred feet from the gym in Napoleonville, is a cloudy brown channel set down in a low ravine. One thousand years ago, it carried the main channel of the Mississippi River and was responsible for creating the wetlands in the Bayou region. Like the undoing of a rope, the bayou spread itself into smaller channels—Bayou Terrebonne, Bayou Dularge, Bayou Grand Caillou, and others—which form the relative high ground of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Farther south, those bayous unbraid further into channels like Bayou Pointe au Chien, where the ridges fall into the salt marshes beyond levees, and houses are set high above the surges of the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of the indigenous people of South Louisiana have made the farthest ends of these waterways their home since the mid 1700s, when European settlement forced them from the high grounds of places like Iti-Humma (“Red Pole” or Baton Rouge). In the summer of 2010, as crews skimmed Deepwater Horizon oil off the surface of the Gulf, I spoke to members of the Pointe-Au-Chien Tribe who were dealing with the latest in a series of disruptions from the oil and gas industry. Several described francophone parents and grandparents, many of whom couldn’t read, unwittingly signing their property rights to Texas oil companies for small amounts of cash. In 2010, 60-year-old Sydney Verdin told an AP reporter that he and his father had to use shotguns to block an oil crew from digging a trench through a nearby burial ground. “We said: if you go one more step, you’ll risk your life. They didn’t go through the burial ground.”
At the Napoleonville hearing, members of the United Houma Nation expressed disbelief that they had not received notice of the public hearing for the project. Members were concerned that the pipeline will cross under Bayou Lafourche, which provides much of the tribe’s water supply and plays a pivotal role in the State’s Coastal Master Plan. Since the 1970s, the rising Gulf has claimed 40 to 50% of Lafourche Parish’s land, according to NASA. To fight erosion, the state plans to build a $196 million structure that would divert Mississippi River sediment back into Bayou Lafourche and nourish wetlands in its basin. That plan relies on the deepening of the bayou, and members of the tribe worried that the pipeline could complicate that process. (The proposed pipeline would be sunk 40 feet below the bayou, which opponents say is not deep enough). John Silver, who serves on the Houma Nation’s tribal council, said he “urges the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] to deny the permits as coastal efforts to protect the tribe’s homelands are ongoing.”
Jessica Parfait, another member of the United Houma Nation who spoke in Napoleonville, is working on a two-year grant to archive the tribe’s artifacts and historic materials. She testified about the potential damage to cultural sites, mounds, and artifacts along the path of the pipeline, since the construction will cross land that was once inhabited by indigenous populations.
The collection that she is digitizing is housed in the former Old Settlement School, built in the 1940s to educate indigenous children, who, until that point were not allowed to attend local public schools. The school, Parfait said, “is way down at the end of the road down in Golden Meadow. You could literally walk to the road and see the floodgates. And the first time I went there I was thinking to myself: those floodgates are the only thing keeping us safe from losing decades of history.”
The town of Golden Meadow occupies a seven mile stretch of Bayou Lafourche, surrounded by a ring of levees. On either side of the levees, globs of wetlands once nourished by Bayou Lafourche freshwater have been carved into an angular network of criss-crossing canals—state land first leased in the 1930s to The Texas Company (later Texaco). Below them, according to DNR maps, are more than 400 mostly-abandoned oil, gas, and sulfur wells. A study published in 1996 by UNO researchers estimated that 36% of Louisiana’s wetland loss is due to oil and gas activity, such as dredging and extraction. That number does not include the industry’s effects on sea level rise from the burning of hydrocarbons.
Despite the fact that the 17,000 members of the United Houma Nation occupy some of the most vulnerable places on the coast, the tribal council treads lightly when it comes to the industry’s damage to the coast. “We don’t say we completely oppose oil and gas because we do understand that that is where a lot of people make their living,” Parfait said in an interview. Both her father and brother work offshore on rigs. I asked about the tension in relying on an industry that is responsible for so much damage—a tension embodied by the tribe but shared by most who live in this state. She said it’s hard to look at the bigger picture when, “I hear it all the time, it feeds my family… They’re not really fully taking into account our contribution to it, like oil and dredging and what that’s doing to the environment.”
The changes on the ground are slow-moving, difficult to see, and often hidden underground or behind levees. Even more obscure are the changes from above. The future of Louisiana’s coast hangs in a delicate balance of global carbon emissions and the rising seas that result. Water across the globe doesn’t rise uniformly, and Louisiana faces some of the highest rates of sea level rise in the world. The Paris Climate Agreement, which Donald Trump has said he would “cancel,” attempts to control carbon emissions enough to keep global temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius. Any higher and sea levels could jump from 3.5 feet in 100 years to 6.5 feet in the same time period, according to a 2016 study in the journal Nature, erasing much of the coast south of I-10.
Lanor Curole, director of the United Houma Nation’s vocational program, has already seen the changes with her own eyes. In Napoleonville she said, “Science is not foolproof and we can never project the consequences of these actions. The land here in Louisiana has told us this over and over again. As a Native woman, I ask that you deny the permit, as this coast is not strong enough to withstand the trade offs of this industry.”