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BP Spill Cleanup Alone Won’t End Gulf’s Suffering: Albert Hunt

Any member of Congress who wants to be taken seriously on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or any top Obama administration official involved in policy should be required to spend several days here in Port Sulphur, Louisiana.

A quick trip wouldn’t make experts of Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas or White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It would, however, give them a more realistic appreciation of the short-term problems and long-term despair afflicting this area.

A stay in Louisiana isn’t a total downer, especially in the aftermath of the White House-negotiated, BP Plc-funded $20 billion escrow fund and the choice of Kenneth R. Feinberg to run it. This affords much needed immediate relief.

At the same time, the challenges and perils ahead are stunning. Five years ago today, an area that is home to seven of the 10 busiest U.S. ports, produces almost a third of domestic oil and 12 percent of gas, and supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s seafood, was eroding away, having lost land the size of the state of Delaware in the preceding half century.

Then, two of the worst disasters in recent memory, Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill -- both the result of human negligence -- exacerbated the problem. There is a desperate need for major restoration; history suggests little cause for optimism.

Fishing Industry

Until the BP well is capped, Louisianans don’t have the luxury of worrying about the long term. Going out on a fishing boat last week from Port Sulphur -- almost 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the spill -- the first 15 or 20 minutes are traveled through tranquil, still waters, dotted with a few oyster traps and seemingly lush green islands.

Then you start to notice sheen in the water and the grass is blackish brown at the roots. Big globs appear; when you touch it, the black gooey stuff sticks to the fingers. There are more than a dozen boats; the guide explains that’s normal, except instead of casting nets for shrimp they’re putting out booms to catch oil.

Captain Brad Schmit, who runs the Fishmaster Guide Service here, opens his black appointment book for June. There are big Cs marked on every day -- for cancellations. He has lost more than half his bookings -- four boats usually go for a day of fishing -- and $40,000 in revenue.

‘Large Claim’

Even when the oil is cleaned up, he worries about business. “The perception has been pounded into people; it’s going to take a while,” says Schmit, who has already gotten $1,000 from London-based BP and is “looking forward to filing a large claim next week.”

He likely will be pleased as Feinberg wants to get emergency money out quickly.

One of the great experts on the plight of Southern Louisiana, John Barry, a historian and acclaimed author of “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927,” says he hopes this is a turning point for the Obama administration’s handling of this situation. “Until now, I’d have given the president a D on his handling,” Barry says, noting that the person in charge, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, was a “hero in the Hurricane Katrina” but “ceded too much to BP.” The part-time professor says the grade is improving with the A-plus he gives President Barack Obama for forcing BP to accept the escrow fund.

E-Minus for Bush

(Even at his worst, Barry says Obama has been better than former President George W. Bush, who he gives an E-minus, he says, recalling with laughter Bush aide Karl Rove’s assertions that the 2005 debacle was the fault of state and local officials.)

Even when the tragic spill is capped, hopefully avoiding a potentially disastrous hurricane, and the oil cleaned up, it still leaves a perilous place.

As Barry and others have chronicled, the Mississippi River here now has only about a third of its natural sediment; the Louisiana coast line, in the words of Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck, has been “keyholed, sliced and diced and left in shreds by the oil industry”; the Intracoastal Waterway, originally built to protect against potential German submarine attacks in World War II and that cuts through Louisiana, has further eroded the marshlands; and there are those infamous levees that devastated New Orleans and adjoining parishes during Katrina.

To restore the Gulf as Obama has vowed requires technology, resources, and political will.

$100 Billion Cost

The most credible cost estimates are in the $80 billion to $100 billion range over the next quarter century. This includes river diversions, land replacement and, most critically, relocation expenses.

A big chunk of this, Barry argues, should be picked up by the federal government. A major cause of the decline of sediment in the river, a big factor in land loss, was the construction of major dams on the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi and supplies most of the sediment.

Much of the rest of the nation will suffer, he notes, if the economic vitality of the Gulf is dissipated.

Yet there’s little reason to think a cash-strapped federal government will be eager to make a huge investment in this area, which is so riddled with political and business incompetence. There were similar vows after the 2005 hurricane. “Everyone thought Katrina would change the political equation,” Barry says. “It didn’t much.”

Moreover, the once powerful Louisiana congressional delegation is fractious and ineffective.

Oil Industry Payout

Professor Houck makes a compelling case that the oil industry should pay a big chunk of any restoration. He acknowledges that’s probably a pipedream. “Our politicians never question the oil and gas industry,” he says.

Both hold out hope that Obama, despite his inept initial handling of the spill, is more committed to doing something than previous administrations. Also, the politics may be easier this time, as there’s an obvious villain, BP, and the victims aren’t predominantly poor inner-city residents as they were during Katrina.

Some were encouraged when the White House tapped Ray Mabus, a Gulf native and former Mississippi governor, to head a restoration project. One problem: Mabus is going to keep his day job as Navy secretary.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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