Drill Offshore — For a Seafood Bonanza


Louisiana takes many hits as “the northernmost banana republic.” Yuppies and Greenies constitute a rare, exotic and even comical species down here — to the immense benefit of America’s energy needs. "Progressive" and "enlightened" would not be terms Obama’s Bay Area supporters would use to describe the Bayou state’s decision-makers — especially those who made major decisions half a century ago.

Yet these rustics and yahoos spurred more revolutionary "change" in the production of (genuine) energy than any Obama supporter could imagine with all his or her hallucinations about solar panels and windmills.

In energy production, Louisiana has been well ahead of the learning curve for decades, and offers ready proof regarding its much-hyped "perils." The first offshore oil production platforms went up off the Louisiana coast in 1947.

By 1953 Hollywood (no less!) was already hailing the pioneering wildcatters who moved major mountains — technological, logistical, psychological, cultural — to tap and reap this source that today provides a quarter of America’s domestic petroleum, without causing a single major oil spill in the process. This record stands despite dozens of hurricanes — including the two most destructive in North American history, Camille and Katrina — repeatedly battering the drilling and production structures, along with the 20,000 miles of pipeline that transport the oil shoreward. This is the most extensive offshore pipeline network in the world.

In the 1953 movie Thunder Bay, Jimmy Stewart plays the complicated protagonist, Steve Martin, the hard-bitten, ex-navy oil engineer who built the first offshore oil platform off Louisiana in 1947. "The brawling, mauling story of the biggest bonanza of them all!" says the Universal ad for the studio’s first wide-screen movie.

Much of the brawling by Stewart and his henchmen was against the local Cajuns who fished and shrimped for a living. Their livelihood, it seemed obvious at the time, would soon vanish amidst a hellbroth of irreversible pollution. The movie covers a time period of barely one year yet ends on a happy note of conciliation as the fishermen reaped a bonanza almost as big as Jimmy’s itself. The oil structures had kicked in as artificial reefs and made possible a bigger haul of seafood than anything in these fishermen’s lifetimes.

Half a century later, with 3203 of the 3,729 offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico studding her coastal waters, Louisiana provides almost a third of North America’s commercial fisheries. A study by LSU’s sea grant college shows that 85 percent of Louisiana’s offshore fishing trips involve fishing around these structures. The same study found 50 times more marine life around an oil production platform than in the surrounding mud bottoms. That this proliferation of seafood might come because — rather than in spite — of the oil production rattled many environmental cages and provoked a legion of scoffers.

Amongst the scoffers were some The Travel Channel producers, fashionably greenish in their views. But they read these claims in a book titled The Helldiver’s Rodeo. The book described an undersea panorama that (if true) could make an interesting show for the network, they concluded, while still scoffing.

They scoffed as we rode in from the airport. They scoffed over raw oysters, grilled redfish and seafood gumbo that night. More scoffing through the Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s. They scoffed even while suiting up in dive gear and checking the cameras as we tied up to an oil platform 20 miles in the Gulf.

But they came out of the water bug-eyed and indeed produced and broadcast a program showcasing a panorama that turned on its head every environmental superstition against offshore oil drilling. Huge amberjack lunged powerfully when speared. They writhed violently as the diver wrestled them to the surface. Schools of fish filled the water column from top to bottom — from 6-inch blennies to 12-foot sharks. Fish by the thousands. Fish by the ton.

The cameras were going crazy. Do I focus on the shoals of barracuda? Or that cloud of jacks? On the immense schools of snapper below, or on the fleet of tarpon above? How ’bout this — WHOOOAA — hammerhead!

We had some close-ups, too, of coral and sponges, the very things disappearing off Florida’s (that bans offshore oil drilling) pampered reefs. Off Louisiana, they sprout in colorful profusion from the huge steel beams — acres of them. You’d never guess this was part of that unsightly structure above.

The panorama of marine life around an offshore oil platform staggers anyone who puts on goggles and takes a peek, even (especially!) the most worldly scuba divers. Here’s a video peek at this seafood bonanza.