By JR Ball
BATON ROUGE -- Opponents of the planned Bayou Bridge Pipeline, designed to carry crude oil 162 miles across 11 south Louisiana parishes and through the Atchafalaya Basin, have opened a new front in their battle to stop the $670 million project: worker safety. They assert that the oil and gas industry is not safe for workers, and they call for those in the fossil fuel extraction business to shift focus to renewable energy sources.
Their new tack came four days after the fiery explosion of a Phillips 66 natural gas pipeline in Paradis injured five workers and presumably killed another employee, Josh Helms of Thibodaux, whose body has not been found. Moreover, the emphasis on worker safety comes on the heels of a recently released report from the state Department of Environmental Quality on a November fire that badly burned four workers at the Exxon Mobile refinery in Baton Rouge.
"Oil and gas kills people at a much higher rate than renewable" energy, said Cherri Foytlin of Bold Louisiana, citing mid-year 2014 data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showing Louisiana was fourth in oil and gas related deaths. "When is enough enough? Now is the time to draw the line and pursue renewable energy for the safety of our workforce."
Representatives from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Abita 100, 350 Louisiana and GreenARMY joined Foytlin at a news conference Monday (Feb. 13) to call for federal and state officials to deny permits for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline project.
Indeed Louisiana was fourth in the six-month report with three fatalities, matching the state's total for all of 2013. Yet it was far behind Texas, which led the country with 17 oil and gas extraction worker fatalities.
Industry officials don't dispute the figures. But they say the relatively low fatality numbers show companies are safely operating in the state, given how much of the country's oil and gas supply passes through Louisiana.
"The oil and gas sector is constantly developing new technology and equipment to ensure a safe work environment for all they employ," said Gifford Briggs, acting president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. "The way pipelines are built today is far safer and involves much more technology and testing than in the past.
"Is anything 100 percent certain? No, but the pipeline will be built and operated in the safest way possible."
Supporters of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline counter that safety and environmental concerns are overstated given "dramatic improvements" and new technology adopted by industry over the past two decades. They say oil and gas is a major economic driver in the state, and that transporting crude across Louisiana in pipelines is safer and more efficient than doing so with trains, trucks and barges.
Environmental activists have longed complained the oil and gas industry causes pollution, plays a role in climate change, is harming the Atchafalaya Basin and Louisiana's wetlands and bears significant responsibility for the state's coastal land loss. "Our state is more than oil and gas, and we need to preserve it," said Stephanie Grey of Abita 100. "The easiest way to do it is with renewable energy, not fossil fuels."
Renate Heurich of 350 Louisiana said, for example, that 60 percent of the state's energy needs could be met by harnessing offshore wind. "We have the knowledge, the technology and the workforce to do this," Heurich said.
Briggs said his industry organization is open to "all energy resources" but has previously questioned the current reliability of wind power. Other industry officials say many of the alternative energy sources for which environmental activists lobby for would, under current technology, lead to higher consumer and business energy costs.
Anne Rolfes, founding director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said critics of Bayou Bridge Pipeline, linking Lake Charles with an oil terminal in St. James Parish, far outnumber supporters. She said the greater economic effect than the new pipeline would be "hiring workers to fix all the problems with existing pipelines."
Taking aim at former Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., now an oil and gas lobbyist who spoke in favor of the pipeline at a Jan. 12 public hearing, Rolfes said, "If you follow the money, you'll find those supporting this pipeline are either getting campaign contributions or are being paid by the oil and gas industry."