Lafayette is an oil town, and the Obama administration's recent moratorium on deep-water drilling has south Louisiana very concerned.

I don't support the moratorium, but not because of the economics. First, BP didn't invent the practice of sacrificing safety to support greed. For years, we've all heard stories from workers about the crazy practices on drilling rigs, in the Gulf and everywhere. And yet, this is the first major problem in decades. So the bad news is, what happened on the Horizon was inevitable; the good news is, it is still highly unlikely.  We need to take steps to prevent things like this in the future, to be sure, but the likelihood of a recurrence any time soon is tiny.

Beyond that, a friend recently told me a story that has bearing here.  Some years ago, he and some co-workers were prevented from boarding a flight because of a crisis back at his office. The airplane he was supposed to fly on subsequently crashed.

A week later, he and the three colleagues were back, boarding the first plane to resume the ill-fated flight schedule after the crash. They were a bit dismayed to find they were the only four people on the entire plane.

Then one of his colleagues leaned back in his seat and said, "Relax. This is the safest flight in America." Which is obvious when you think about it. After a plane crash, the responsible airline is going to replace the lost plane with the best one available in the fleet, go over all systems in great detail, and man it with the best flight crew on hand. In fact, it is a safe assumption that after a major crash every airline in the business will also be more attentive to all of their planes and crews.

So it is likely that right now in the Gulf, and probably on ocean rigs all over the world, engineers, managers and workers are rechecking every aspect of their systems and safety controls, and reviewing all of their protocols.

So the moratorium is probably overkill.

As for the economic worries, we need to be a bit objective about all of it. When any industry is threatened by government change that carries even a minor price tag, the companies involved will do everything humanly possible, and say anything remotely believable, to head it off. Oil's not alone here, most businesses will do the same thing, particularly the large publicly traded companies. But if the probable loss is 500 jobs, industry will say it is 5,000. If the local economic impact is $10 million, it will become $100 million-- or even a billion, if the industry can get away with it.

And you and I have no way to know any better. There is no one putting out different data. And few individuals or organizations have the resources and/or the political will to contradict big, deeply-entrenched industry.

So our state & national officials, City-Parish government, LEDA, the Chamber, and all of our leaders are going to accept the data published by the oil companies, and act on it. Fact is, politically there is no real alternative.

But put all of those aside. Let us assume that the gloomer-doomers are correct. We are about to lose thousands of jobs, and many millions of dollars of revenue. Even then, I don't think Lafayette needs to worry too much about the moratorium.

That's because my opening statement, "Lafayette is an oil town... " was ironic. Read my essay, 'Why Lafayette is Not an Oil Town'.  The take-home point from that article is that in spite of the Oil Bust, in the 1980's Lafayette grew at a brisk 15%.  Even more telling, our growth during the 1970's Oil Boom days was only 19%, no more than the median for the Hub City-- and even that growth may have been more a result of the arrival of Interstate 10, as it was a product of the oil patch. This reasoning is supported by the fact that the largest decade growth Lafayette ever experienced (153%!) occurred after the arrival of the railroad in 1883. Obviously, the Interstate system was very much the railroad of of the 1970's.

So the first reason we do not need to worry, is because we are simply not an oil town. Demographer Elliot Stonecipher says as much. While the rest of the country has grown over the past several decades, the state of Louisiana has flat-lined, with no growth at all. The only communities in Louisiana that have kept pace with the national growth rate are all located on the Interstate (reinforcing the argument of the preceding paragraph). Of those, all of them except Bossier and Lafayette grew because of white flight. Bossier, he points out, grew because of Barksdale Air Force Base (and probably right now, because of the Haynesville Shale exploration). According to Stonecipher, only one city in Louisiana has grown in the right way, by building a diversified economy.

Lafayette.

Indeed, a couple of months ago City-Parish President Joey Durel pointed out that current unemployment in Lafayette is what it was in the rest of the country, before the recession. So while the rest of the country struggles, we have certainly felt a pinch. But right now it is only a pinch. We have to assume that a large reason for this is our diversified economy.

Another, very important reason we do not need to worry about the moratorium is because of our innovative spirit.  More than one of our local community leaders noted that after the oil bust of the 1980's, we survived because a lot of our local businesses simply reinvented themselves. Lafayette is an innovative, resourceful culture. When we're faced with obstacles, we simply redesign around them.

Our history demonstrates that strongly. We've been through problems much larger than this one, and we have always grown while we did.  The Lafayette Timeline makes that clear: two World Wars, the Civil War, three depressions (including the Great Depression), the Flood of '27, constant hurricanes-- oh and yes, the Oil Bust of the 1980s. Through it all, we have continued to grow and prosper.  In fact, there has only been a single decade in our history in which our population dropped:  when Vermilion Parish was carved off from Lafayette Parish.

And when you consider that rapid growth, and more recently our recurrent inclusion on national lists for innovation, we must conclude that with each setback, we redesign our community to be better than than it was before.

So even if the negative Nancys are correct, and the Lafayette economy is going to be hit very hard by the moratorium, maybe we should ask ourselves: Is that necessarily a bad thing?  Think about it. Don't we regularly let our children suffer in the short run, knowing it will make them much better in the long run?

We do this because we love our children, and we want them to grow. If we also love Lafayette, why should we spare ourselves some short-term pain? 

This is not just some character-building exercise I am proposing here.  We have, all of us, recognized that we are much too dependent on the crack cocaine of plentiful oil. In the middle of this crisis, we need to stop and remember that the pain from our addiction is not simply economic, but much, much worse. The adverse effects of our oil-lust are social, intellectual, and cultural.

For decades we have watched the sirens of easy oil money pull our young people away from education and more desirable careers, for high-paying, low-skilled jobs. Now we are also experiencing what we have feared for years, a catastrophic oil spill that is damaging other key industries and assets, even assets that define so much of our cultural identity: seafood, boating, and our beautiful, bountiful-- but always fragile-- coasts and wetlands.

Beyond even those concerns we are, all of us, aware that the pollution from fossil products threatens our prairies, woods and bayous; and worse, it damages our health, particularly the health of our children. We have all lost friends and family to the terrors of Cancer Alley. To be fair, there are many, many chemicals from many sources that we dump into our water and soil, and from there into our bodies, and not all of those poisons are petroleum products. But we would all admit that the oil industry contributes much too much of our carcinogen intake. 

With that, there is the growing realization that our oil dependence has lead us into many malodorous alliances with repressive and intolerant governments, some of whom vocally support us in public while their private citizens, enriched with our dollars, fund terrorists to destroy us.  The problems stemming from our dependence on oil require us to consider the hidden costs of oil, and the unacknowledged government subsidies.

For these reasons, we need to aggressively look for alternatives: alternate fuels, alternate lifestyles. Now, before someone accuses me of wanting to shut down petroleum, well I do, but not any time soon.  I simply want us to use this catastrophe to take intelligent, deliberate steps that will constantly move us away from fossil products toward healthier choices:  healthier for our bodies, healthier for our quality of life, healthier for our country.

The current crisis is an opportunity for us to rethink, redefine, and reinvent ourselves. What appears to be a crisis may in fact be an opportunity for us to become even stronger, to become more diversified and more innovative than we were before.

And that brings me to that last reason we should not worry about the moratorium. We should choose not to worry about it. If we need to move into uncharted economic lands, our innate optimism is essential. Optimistic people and optimistic communities work harder, work more enthusiastically, and work more creatively.  Which is precisely how they become stronger and more resilient.

Lafayette is supposed to be a highly religious town. Well, we need a little faith here.

Sure, we need some faith in God during this calamity. But we also need a some faith in our community, in our culture, and in our traditions.

Truth is, we need a little faith in ourselves.


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