WHEN TAB Benoit learned the Deep Horizon oil rig had exploded and sunk off the shores of Louisiana, he felt a mixture of anger and deja vu.
“Everything we’ve talked about comes true,” sighs Benoit, a well-known Cajun blues singer and environmental activist.
Benoit once worked as a pilot flying pipeline patrols over the Gulf of Mexico in search of petroleum leaks.
We sit on Benoit’s houseboat in Bayou Terrebonne. It is sunset, and mullet fish jump in the water with a soft ker-plunk. Down the road, guards from homeland security have deployed around BP headquarters, literal proof of Benoit’s contention that the US government protects oil companies.
Under supervision by the US coast guard, BP yesterday took advantage of a let-up in the bad weather that stalled containment measures to lay protective booms along the coastline.
BP is also attempting to activate the “blowout preventer” that sank with its rig, using underwater robots. The company is building huge steel and concrete containers to capture the gushing oil and siphon it off, and it is drilling two relief wells, which will eventually be used to shut off the leak.
For more than a decade, Benoit has campaigned to save Louisiana’s wetlands – marshes built up over centuries by silt from the Mississippi, the length of the state’s coastline. In 2003, he founded Voices of the Wetlands (Vow), an association of Louisiana’s best-loved musicians, including Dr John, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and George Porter. Vow has done more than any other group to raise awareness of what has become the state’s existential ecological cause.
Louisiana is losing an acre of wetlands to erosion every hour, Benoit says. Had it not been for the loss of 2,400sq m of marshes over the past 80 years, New Orleans would not have been flooded by Hurricane Katrina, with the loss of some 1,800 lives, in 2005.
Benoit blames the US army engineer corps, which between the late 1920s and the early 1960s turned the Mississippi into “a manmade aqueduct”. The levees they built along its banks speeded up erosion by preventing fresh water flooding into the marshes and depositing silt.
Even more, Benoit blames the oil companies – a reproach that has found renewed resonance in the wake of the BP oil spill.
Louisiana is “oil heaven”, he says. Thirty per cent of the oil consumed in the US comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and 80 per cent of it transits the port of New Orleans.
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“It’s all oil-related,” Benoit continues, calling up Google Earth on his phone to show me the grid of canals that oil companies have forged through the Mississippi delta marshes. “Everything curved is natural; the straight lines were dug to move rigs in and out and lay pipeline,” he says.
The oil canals draw more salt water into the wetlands, speeding their erosion. “The oil companies are eating themselves alive, because they built all that infrastructure, all those refineries, on land that’s disintegrating,” says Benoit.
It would be unrealistic to demand an end to off-shore drilling, Benoit says. “I know what this nation’s running on. We let ourselves into a situation where it’s so important to us that the federal government protects oil companies. It’s understandable for the economy, but it’s not understandable for democracy.”
Criticism of BP has centred on the poor quality of the blowout preventer installed by Transocean, the firm that leased the rig to BP. In Norway, for example, blowout preventers must include an acoustic valve to help activate them. The device is not required in the less regulated US oil industry.
The fact that BP is a foreign company has increased resentment over the oil spill.
“Where is the British government?” Benoit asks. “If an American company had a blowout like this in another country, our government would be all over there.”
At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (sponsored by Shell) which ended on Sunday, Pearl Jam’s singer, Eddie Vedder, suggested the children of BP executives should spend their summer holidays cleaning up the oil that is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Last September, US senator John Kerry’s wife, Teresa, invited Benoit to perform on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. The experience was an eye-opener.
“It was a scratch-our-back kind of party,” he recalls. “They weren’t talking about fixing the environment, but about turning being environmentally conscious into an industry, to make jobs. It’s like taping plastic leaves on a tree with duct tape.”
Benoit insists he is “not a tree-hugging environmentalist”, just an ordinary Louisianan of French and Indian origin who is fighting back rather than lose the land he lives on.
Generations of Benoits have inhabited the Bayou Terrebonne, where they took boats to school and work. That delicate eco-system has been severely damaged by manmade levees, but Benoit says it can be restored. “The Earth fixes itself,” he says. “All you have to do is stop what you are doing.”