The history of the impact of oil and gas production on coastal Louisiana’s ecosystems has been a long and sometimes bumpy one that continues to this day in light of several lawsuits filed recently against oil and gas companies over industrial canals dug through the marsh.
A new book due out in March from Jason Theriot, an energy and environmental consultant, takes a look at the evolution of both the industry and the search for a solution to the coastal land loss issue.
“American Energy, Imperiled Coast: Oil and Gas Development in Louisiana’s Wetlands,” is not only a historical work, Theriot said, but also very personal to him and his family.
As a Louisiana native whose grandfather was born and raised in Cocodrie, where he spent a lot of time as a child, “one question I always had is how did this coastal land loss problem evolve,” Theriot said recently.
His grandfather would show him maps of certain areas in Terrebonne Parish showing what existed in the 1950s and what had been lost by just a few decades later.
Then, he said, he read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book “Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.”
Theriot used that first-hand experience and formal education in oil-field history combined with his family’s traditions of fishing and working in the oil and gas industry to write his book.
“I have tried to make sense of the history of this unusual relationship between the oil and gas industry, the wetlands and the people,” he wrote in an email.
As Eastern states after World War II moved away from the more expensive coal gas to much cheaper natural gas, companies in the South needed to find more gas, so they expanded into south Louisiana and offshore. More gas production meant more pipelines were needed, and more pipelines meant bigger canals.
“In Louisiana if you needed to get access to the coastal area, you dug canals,” Theriot said, which is what trappers, farmers and others living in coastal Louisiana doing. “That was a standard practice in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Even in the 1950s there were calls from landowners and others to improve the environmental footprint of the oil and gas industry by plugging canals at certain intervals to avoid saltwater intrusion, he said.
Another change was for the industry to hire oyster experts to find oyster beds in areas where they were working, he said.
The practice of dredging canals through the marsh didn’t really change until the 1970s and 1980s with the design and construction of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which began operations in the 1970s.
Companies were hiring their first ecologists and were realizing that the way business had been done was no longer going to work.
“Engineering on the run as they had done for 50 years was no longer acceptable,” he said, as the public was learning more about research about coastal land loss and the interaction with the oil and gas industry.
“(Eugene) Turner was really one of the first to delve deep into the canals impact,” Theriot said about this current professor at LSU.
There was also the rise of nonprofit groups along the coast that started to get attention focused on the causes and solutions of land loss.
In 1987, one of these groups, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, released a report called “Coastal Louisiana, Here Today and Gone Tomorrow?” that in part called for more strict requirements for permitting the construction of oil and gas canals and for state regulations that would require the use of alternatives to the building of new canals.
The complete history remains to be written.
“What is certain is that people and local governments will have to make tough choices about how best to maintain the community life, culture and jobs once the encroaching Gulf waters ultimately force people in vulnerable places like Cocodrie to move to higher ground,” Theriot wrote in the email.
“Oil and gas companies will also have to make tough decisions about protecting and maintaining the billions of dollars of critical energy in infrastructure built in the wetlands. As more wetlands disappear, more pipelines and related assets will be exposed.”