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Hydrocarbon Hucksters

Lessons from Louisiana on Oil, Politics, and Environmental Justice

Ernest Zebrowski

Publication Year: 2014

Hydrocarbon Hucksters is the saga of the oil industry's takeover of Louisiana--its leaders, its laws, its environment, and, by rechanneling the flow of public information, its voters. It is a chronicle of mindboggling scientific and technical triumphs sharing the same public stew with myths about the "goodness" of oil and bald-faced public lies by politicians and the captains of industry. It is a story of money and power, greed and corruption, jingoism and exploitation, pollution and disease, and the bewilderment and resignation of too many of the powerless. Most importantly, Hydrocarbon Hucksters is a case study of what happens when a state uncritically hands the oil and petrochemical industries everything they desire. Today, Louisiana ranks at or near the bottom of the fifty states on virtually every measure related to the quality of life--income, health, education, environment, public services, public safety, physical infrastructure, and vulnerability to disasters (both natural and man-made). Nor, contrary to the claims of the hydrocarbon sector, has there been much in the way of job creation to offset all of this social grief.

The authors (one a scientist, the other an environmental lawyer) have woven together the science, legal history, economic issues, and national and global contexts of what has happened. Their objective is to raise enough national awareness to prevent other parts of the United States from repeating Louisiana's historical follies. The authors are uncle and niece, a generation apart, who have melded their conclusions from two separate tracks.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This is the saga of the oil industry’s takeover of the state of Louisiana— its leaders, its laws, its environment, and the critical thinking skills of so many of its voters. It is a story of mind-boggling scientific and technological triumphs sharing the same public stew with imaginative myths and bald-faced lies, to the point...

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Louisiana by the Numbers

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pp. xi-xiii

Different sources disagree slightly about some of the statistics listed below. The two main reasons for such discrepancies are (1) many of the data change over time, so the published figures depend on when they are collected (yes, even the state’s land area is changing continuously due to erosion), and (2) different sources...

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1. The Well from Hell

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pp. 3-21

April 20, 2010, Transocean’s $560 million offshore rig Deepwater Horizon is barely two days from completing its part of the project. The exploratory drill (monikered “Macondo”) has successfully tapped an enormous reservoir of oil 13,293 feet beneath the seabed at the bottom of the mile-deep Mississippi Canyon, about...

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2. Black Gold

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pp. 22-35

It’s actually not black when it first sees the light of day. Usually it’s a reddish brown or sometimes a pale dishwater yellow or even a pastel greenish- brown. There are numerous places in the world where it seeps from the ground naturally. When that happens, the lighter chemical components soon evaporate away...

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3. Onto the Shelves

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pp. 36-51

Unlike most other industries, oil producers have little flexibility in choosing their sites of operation. The oil is where it is, and that can include some pretty challenging places: the frozen Arctic, sweltering deserts, and, of course, beneath the seas. In fact, geologists tell us that all of our planet’s petroleum started...

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4. Oops—1980

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pp. 52-59

November 21, 1980. The official hurricane season is almost over, with no major storms striking anywhere in the United States this year. An exploratory drill into the bed of Lake Peigneur, in south-central Louisiana, is right on schedule. The owner of the lease is Texaco. Until now, it’s been a small...

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5. More Oops—1969, 1979, and 1989

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pp. 60-76

It’s not clear who decided to name BP’s Mississippi Canyon well “Macondo,” but it was definitely an inspired choice. (And yes, that name was used even on the original drilling application.) In a 1967 novel by the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Macondo” is a mythical...

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6. Social Scruples Bedeviled

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pp. 77-93

The history of American industry is replete with marvelous stories of Yankee ingenuity juxtaposed with dismal accounts of environmental pillage and exploitations of the working class. The steel industry in western Pennsylvania, coal mining in Appalachia, gold and silver extraction in the West, and, yes, drilling for oil...

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7. Chemical Voodoo

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pp. 94-106

In the United States as a whole, chemical pollution (including in inland waters) averages about 570 pounds per square mile per year. In Louisiana, the corresponding figure is roughly 1,800 pounds per square mile per year, more than three times as high. On a per capita basis, this amounts to about 7 pounds of pollution...

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8. What Do the Simple Folk Do?

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pp. 107-122

Around 1951, an honest, hard-working family man in one of the rural parishes of northern Louisiana had a disheartening experience, one that was all too common at this time. Yes, he was a real person, and we know this episode is true (at least in its essentials) because we’ve corroborated it with the handwritten mineral...

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9. Of Wisdom and Folly

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pp. 123-139

American-style democracy was not designed to guarantee that only the best and the brightest would lead. Instead, the governing concept was more akin to a revolving door, where citizen-lawmakers would serve in office for relatively short periods (a handful of years), then return to private life before...

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10. Drill, Baby, Drill

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pp. 140-154

Picture this: One day you hear on the news that there has been a drastic decrease in the global supply of oil. Soon you notice that one gas station after another is closing due to lack of supply. You need to put fuel in your car to get to work, but some retailers enforce a ten-gallon limit per customer and others...

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11. The Oil Industry’s Gifts Keep Giving

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pp. 155-169

In 2011, the five largest oil companies—ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips—reported a combined total of $140 billion in profits. ExxonMobil has been growing in leaps and bounds over the past few years. In 2005, it surpassed Walmart as the world’s largest publicly held corporation (when measured...

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12. Can America Learn?

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pp. 170-184

For more than a century now, the people of Louisiana have been cocooned in an experimental laboratory where the oil and petrochemical industries have been granted everything they’ve asked for. Numerous rounds of empirical results are now in, and as we’ve seen in previous chapters, the results aren’t pretty...

Source Notes

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pp. 185-192

Further Reading

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pp. 193-194


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pp. 195-202

E-ISBN-13: 9781617038990
E-ISBN-10: 1621039870
Print-ISBN-13: 9781621039877

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Louisiana -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • Petroleum industry and trade -- Environmental aspects -- Louisiana.
  • Petroleum industry and trade -- Political aspects -- Louisiana.
  • Louisiana -- Economic conditions.
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