What Louisiana’s Election Results Say About Fossil Fuels’ Future in the U.S. South

November 25, 2020

Casey Williams

If you picture the U.S. South as hopelessly conservative, Louisiana’s election results are hard to explain. Louisianians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump on November 3. They also voted overwhelmingly against the fossil fuel industry, rejecting a proposed amendment (CA5) to the state constitution that would have allowed oil, gas, petrochemical, and other manufacturers to dodge property taxes for decades—and possibly forever. 

Grassroots groups like Together Louisiana organized against CA5, and 63 per cent of voters opposed it—a greater share of voters than cast ballots for Trump. A week later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under pressure from faith groups, denied a permit to a plastics manufacturer planning to build in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” Days after that, public pressure forced a state board to defer $43 million in tax breaks for Marathon Petroleum, the latest in a string of setbacks for corporations seeking tax subsidies.  

Louisianians have every reason to fight the fossil fuel industry. Rigs spill, pipelines leak, refineries explode, and chemical plants make sure “Cancer Alley’ earns its name.

Yet there’s a “mythology that’s grown that the petrochemical industry is what makes Louisiana work,” environmental justice organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley told me recently. Popular media sustains this mythology, as do corporations’ meager but ubiquitous tributes. Shell Oil sponsors New Orleans’s annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, and “severance taxes” assessed on oil and gas extraction fund a portion of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Many Louisianians also depend directly on the industry: they work in a refinery, or their parish school system relies on taxes collected from chemical plants.

Like all mythologies, the sense that petrochemicals, and fossil fuels generally, make Louisiana work stretches a grain of truth into a sweeping illusion. Globally, persistently low oil and gas prices, caused in part by COVID-19, are forcing fossil fuel company bankruptcies and layoffs. In Louisiana, the decline started earlier. Oil, gas, and petrochemical corporations haven’t employed more than a small percentage of the state’s workforce for decades, and corporate subsidies ensure that very little of the state’s mineral wealth returns to the public. Louisianians give away $2,857 per capita in corporate tax breaks each year (Texans, by comparison, give away $89). Those subsidies divert money from local schools, parks, roads, and other services, partly explaining why Louisiana ranks dead last among U.S. states in many measures of health, education, and social well-being.

In other words, Louisiana trades public money for industries that sometimes employ fewer people than they sicken and kill. Why would anyone accept this deal? For one, the alternative presented by industry can seem worse: no jobs, no public revenue, no future. And workers’ lives are often as debt-financed as the industry as a whole: they’re overleveraged to pay for houses, cars, and other high-carbon “investments,” and cannot afford a future other than one in which fossil-fuel revenues service their debt. In one way or another, many people in Louisiana are hostages to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.

In one way or another, many people in Louisiana are hostages to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.

These industries, in turn, operate like a colonial power: multinational corporations exploit land, labour, resources, and public funds, while redistributing the products just enough to make people dependent on their continued profitability. Modern petro-colonialism reprises aspects of Louisiana’s sugar colonialism, fueled by enslaved African workers, while now also powering a fossil economy whose emissions supercharge hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the destruction caused by fossil fuels, the industry’s ubiquity communicates a threat: “If you revolt you die,” or at least lose your job, your house, your schools, your roads, your coasts, your festivals. Such a threat is, as scholar Jasper Bernes writes, the "counterrevolutionary lecture that capitalism continually whispers into the ears of would-be rebels.”

Courageously, many Louisianians have chosen to be rebels anyway. Their willingness to rebel testifies to the strength of grassroots organizations like Together Louisiana, which have drawn on the environmental justice tradition of the Black church to successfully oppose corporate tax giveaways and industry expansion. Their success, in turn, suggests that more and more people refuse to trade everything to prop up a moribund industry.

Voting against CA5 is not the most radical act imaginable, but the measure’s overwhelming defeat suggests that working people vote for their interests when ballot measures give them a chance to break from the two-party system. That some also vote for Republicans says more about how both parties have failed working people. Trump’s Republican Party routes grievances through self-serving nationalism, while the Democratic Party weds anti-worker policies to a largely symbolic politics of inclusion. Louisianians used November’s elections to articulate a different political vision: they do not want multinational corporations using up their land, labour, and resources, siphoning money from their schools and public services, destroying their lifeways, and giving them scraps in exchange.

Opposition to CA5 suggests a reservoir of potential support for a just, egalitarian, and democratically managed transition away from fossil fuels, and points to a robust network of organizers prepared to fight for it. A deliberate and democratic transition—one that replaces the current arrangement with a democratized economy powered by renewable energy—would serve Louisianians better than a piecemeal, industry-led shift away from oil and gas. The latter is already happening, allowing corporations to juice the state’s remaining resources and tax dollars while leaving residents to deal with toxic waste and rising temperatures. Grassroots organizing against corporate tax breaks, including CA5, suggests that Louisianians won’t let that continue without a fight.

During a five-year labour dispute (1984-1989) with chemical manufacturer BASF, John Daigle, then a member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) in Geismar, LA laid out the union’s strategy: “We’re going to clean it up or we’re going to shut it down." Like Indigenous organizers across North America, Louisianians are shutting it down. By denying public money to powerful corporations, they’re reclaiming resources and power at the same time.

Casey Williams is a journalist and doctoral candidate at Duke University.

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