Political Futures On The Line As Oil Continues To Gush

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The environment is not the only thing being tested by the oil spill in the gulf region; political futures are also on the line. Guest host Allison Keyes talks about the political fallout from the Gulf oil spill with a group of journalists who are covering the disaster and the response. Joining the conversation: Stephanie Grace, political columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune; Corey Dade, who covers southern politics for the Wall Street Journal; and John Archibald, a political reporter for the Birmingham News.


I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, years ago, gospel music star Kirk Franklin couldn't have imagined earning platinum sales status and building a strong family. In his new book, he offers up a blueprint on life. That's a little later.

But first, the politics of the oil spill in the Gulf. Governors from Louisiana to Florida are scrambling to prevent as much physical and political damage as they can. It's just over a month since the explosion that blew the cap off of a now-gushing well 40 miles south of New Orleans.

BP, the oil company, all but conceded yesterday that there's a lot more oil spilling into the Gulf than it previously acknowledged. The company is now siphoning about 5,000 barrels a day, but that's made no apparent difference in the amount that can be seen spewing from the floor of the ocean.

The threat isn't just to the marine and coastal environments. Political futures are on the line, as well. Here's Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Look, we're doing everything we can, with air drops of sand bags and tiger dams, with the Hesco baskets, with multiple layers of booms. At the end of the day, we need to dredge those islands to fight this oil away from our wetlands, away from our coast. Let's go fight this oil out there. I don't want it on a beach, but it's much easier to clean it off a beach than it is to clean it off these wetlands.

KEYES: Again, that was Governor Bobby Jindal. I've got three guests to focus our weekly political chat on that region. John Archibald is metro columnist for the Birmingham News. Stephanie Grace is political columnist with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Corey Dade covers Southern politics for the Wall Street Journal. Thank all of you for being here.

Mr. JOHN ARCHIBALD (Metro Columnist, Birmingham News): Thank you.

Mr. COREY DADE (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thank you.

Ms. STEPHANIE GRACE (Political Columnist, New Orleans Times-Picayune): Thank you.

KEYES: Stephanie, let me start with you. You're in New Orleans. Can you talk to us pretty quickly about the environmental impact so far? What's it looking like?

Ms. GRACE: It's scary and devastating, and we don't know the full extent of it. The news over the last couple days is that the oil that's been out in the Gulf is starting to wash up onto beaches where people fish. It's starting to get into the marshes a little bit, which are, you know, kind of the real habitats for Louisiana seafood, which is a huge industry here.

We're basically a seafood and oil state, and this is they're kind of colliding right now.

KEYES: The fishermen have got to be terrified.

Ms. GRACE: Devastated, and, of course, a lot of them lost their boats in Hurricane Katrina. They're really just getting back. They have big loans. It's really it's rough, and, of course, nobody knows what the future is. You know, you're kind of sitting here waiting to see I mean, we know it's going to be a very long-term problem, but, you know, exactly what it's going to be, nobody knows. And the uncertainty is pretty upsetting, too, for people.

KEYES: Governor Jindal's been kind of putting himself out there every day, though, hasn't he?

Ms. GRACE: He absolutely has. He's been you know, he's been out, flying over some area every day. He's been having press conferences. He's been really talking very tough with both BP and the federal government, and I think that goes over very well here.

KEYES: Briefly, Stephanie, who are people there blaming for this? Are they blaming BP, or are they looking more toward the government?

Ms. GRACE: You get some of each. You know, it's a conservative state. So there will be people who will look at it through an ideological lens. I think there's a lot of frustration with the companies, though, but it's tempered by the fact that they're not going anywhere.

I mean, there's - so much of our state's economy is built on offshore drilling, there are so many jobs connected to it. So it's kind of like, you know, people are very angry, but we also people know they need to learn to live with you know, it's not going away. So it's a little bit tempered that way.

Some of the rhetoric is not really as strong as what you hear in other parts of the country.

KEYES: John, you're in Birmingham, and President Obama has said that he will split the Minerals Management Service. It's the agency that oversees oil and gas production in federal waters. How big a deal is this move to your Republican governor, Bob Riley, and what signal is the president sending with that, do you think?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, I think that right now, we have, in the past, had a real difficulty kind of taking part in any sense of partnership in that regard, and in a lot of ways, not getting a lot of, you know, profits from the whole oil industry in this state. But suffering the consequences has created a bit of bitterness. And so some form of partnership would be welcome.

KEYES: What kind of things are you seeing in Birmingham? I know there were tar balls in parts of Alabama, right?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Right. We've been in Birmingham, of course, we're not on the coast, but Mobile has seen, you know, some tar balls, which may or may not have come from the spill, and the smell of petroleum is, you know, wafting over our beaches.

But we haven't seen anything like they've seen in Louisiana with actual, you know, oil washing into the marshland, which has really been kind of the problem for the governor, I think, and it's making people understand that a month out, just because we haven't seen oil wash up onto the shore doesn't mean we're not going to that the time to panic is over.

KEYES: Corey, you've been traveling the whole region, including Florida. They're very worried about the Keys there. What kind of sense are you getting about how people are looking to hold state and federal officials responsible for this?

Mr. DADE: Well, Florida is a state that's no stranger to natural disasters, of course, and in anticipation of oil potentially hitting its shores, the state has already appointed some attorneys to serve as advisors to the state about how to handle claims filed by civilians, by citizens, by homeowners, business owners, et cetera, against BP, but also, beyond that, to advise the state on how to proceed if, in fact, they believe BP's liability goes further than that.

And the AG for the - the attorney general for the state of Florida has just decided - wrote a letter to BP demanding that BP be prepared to compensate the state in case a hurricane comes in this upcoming hurricane season and carries oil further inward than perhaps it would have otherwise gone.

So I think the officialdom in Florida is certainly very activated and very sort of leery about what it could mean. I think when you look at the coastal regions in Florida, more than any of the other Gulf states, tourism is its cash cow. It's the biggest economic driver in the state.

KEYES: I hear there's like a 50 percent hotel cancellation rate there, Corey?

Mr. DADE: Well, I was going to say while the state, the governor, certainly, and all the tourism officials are trying to put together a promotional campaign - in part with $25 million from BP - to explain to the world that their tourism, beaches and the tourism areas are open for business, there are reports in areas of the Florida Keys, for example, and elsewhere where different lodges and beds and breakfasts and hotels and resorts and such are seeing cancellations. So it's started already, in that sense.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the week in politics, and I'm joined by New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace and political reporters John Archibald of the Birmingham News and Corey Dade of the Wall Street Journal.

John, I wanted to ask you. Aside well, actually, I'm not going to go there yet. Corey, let me come back to you for half a second. In Mississippi, the governor said this week, after taking an aerial tour of the coastline, that the Mississippi coast is open for business, which is kind of different from what we're hearing in Louisiana. Is there a gamble in suggesting that this is all kind of going to be fine?

Mr. DADE: Well, that observation's based on what the federal government is -especially the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is saying, as far as the trajectory of the oil. And at this point, the trajectory of the oil spill does not threaten the Mississippi coast at this point.

It's obviously threatening Louisiana, and it looks like it may go into further into the loop current in the Gulf and go to Florida. And so he's calculating that until such time as the trajectory changes in the water, that Mississippi, for the moment, is safe.

KEYES: John, in Alabama, who are the people blaming for this?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Primarily BP, I believe. There's a little initial question about how quickly the government responded, but most of the blame I hear is directed at the oil company itself.

KEYES: Stephanie, how is the relationship between Governor Jindal and the White House on this issue? Is Jindal kind of keeping his distance? Is there a political risk to him here?

Ms. GRACE: I don't think so. He's actually been pretty cooperative with them. Everyone might remember that he made a bit of a splash giving a speech after President Obama's first speech to Congress, kind of ridiculing the stimulus bill and certain big government actions like monitoring volcanoes.

That's not the Jindal we're seeing right now. We're seeing the kind of problem-solver, technocrat, you know, man-on-the-scene Jindal, and I think that's a very smart choice for him.

And one thing that he's doing that I think is really interesting: He's calling for the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a plan, a state plan to build these kind of temporary sand levees out into the Gulf. That would help keep the oil from coming in.

And the Corps hasn't done it yet because they need to go through environmental, you know, the usual environmental checks. So, you know, in some ways, kind of rhetorically, he's looking a little more big government, proactive than the Democratic administration.

So it's kind of a - you know, it's a good spot for him politically because nobody knows if it'll work, but it really looks like he's trying to say, you know, let's throw everything at it right now. And we're really not hearing the small-government rhetoric that he has resorted to a lot recently in his attempts to kind of be a national Republican player. I don't think that would go over very well right now.

KEYES: John, let me go to you briefly. Your governor is up - his seat is up this year. How much is the oil spill going to factor into this race, do you think?

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Well, mostly because the oil spill has kind of overshadowed much of the politics that's gone on in the state, and it's kind of put it on a back burner. But none of the candidates have really made it part of the issue. They really see it as kind of an issue that the governor doesn't have a whole lot of control over.

KEYES: And Corey, very briefly, could this make or break careers elsewhere in the South?

Mr. DADE: At this point, politically, there doesn't appear to be much reverberation, in part because there's an understanding that this was not -this was not a function of local politicians, state and local, being culpable in this. So at this point, it doesn't appear to be so.

KEYES: All righty. We were joined by John Archibald, metro columnist for the Birmingham News. He joined us from member station WBGM in Birmingham. Stephanie Grace is a political columnist with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. She joined us on the line from New Orleans. And Corey Dade covers Southern politics for the Wall Street Journal. He joined us from Atlanta. Thank you all for your insight.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: Thank you.

Mr. DADE: Thank you.

Ms. GRACE: Thank you.

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