STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The state of Louisiana and the oil and gas industry are married for better or for worse, as they say. Oil and gas is the state's biggest economic engine and Louisiana supplies 30 percent of the nation's oil - at a cost. The Deepwater Horizon spill is the most spectacular environmental calamity, but by no means the only one. NPR's John Burnett looks at the nature of this long relationship between Louisiana and oil.
JOHN BURNETT: The wild well spilling millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf hasn't dampened Virgil Allen's enthusiasm no, sir. Every day he stands here on the Rig Museum, sweating in his Dickies coveralls, telling visitors great things about the offshore oil industry.
Mr. VIRGIL ALLEN (Rig Museum): Then in the early '50s, a guy working here in Morgan City came up with the idea for a reusable, movable drilling rig, and this is the rig that he built, the Mr. Charlie that we're standing on.
BURNETT: The Mr. Charlie is about one-twelfth the size of the gargantuan rigs now bobbing in the deep Gulf.
With onshore oilfields mature and declining, offshore activity is where the action is. An industry study estimates oil and gas and its support businesses generate $70 billion and 320,000 jobs in the state.
Mr. ALLEN: We have farming, we have tourism, fishing, offshore shrimping - I mean we've got other industries, but nothing close to what the oil and gas industry provides.
BURNETT: The oil and gas industry pervades the culture of Cajun South Louisiana. Note the symbol of Morgan City's annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival - a shrimp wearing a hardhat wrapped around an oil derrick.
Even a harsh critic of the oil business like Clarice Friloux knows they cannot survive without it.
Ms. CLARICE FRILOUX: The people from the bayous always made that connection when - if you were a shrimper and you didn't catch any shrimp, or the price of shrimp was too low, more than likely you'd go to work for the oil and gas.
BURNETT: Friloux stands next to her mobile home, less than a mile from a giant oilfield waste facility that periodically sickens her community of Grand Bois.
Ms. FRILOUX: I'm not trying to stop oil and gas. My problem with the oil and gas industry is the way they dispose of it in my community. I think there's a better way to dispose of the waste.
BURNETT: They made a trade-off a long time ago here in the Bayou State. It started with Governor Huey P. Long.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) every man a king, every girl a queen, or you can be a millionaire.
BURNETT: Like no other oil-state governor in America, Huey Long taxed Standard Oil and the other companies that came here to stick their straws in the swamp and suck out the petroleum.
Governor HUEY LONG (Former Democratic Governor, Louisiana): And we expect to have this state ruled by the people, and not by the lords and the interests of high finance.
BURNETT: In the late 1920s, oil company taxes began to help this poor state pay for highways, charity hospitals, and school textbooks. By the 1970s, oil and gas accounted for as much as 40 percent of state revenue. Today, hydrocarbons still contribute 14 percent of the state budget.
Here in Louisiana, the state pays for things that communities normally do -like fire hoses, sewer lines, traffic lights and water towers. Paul Leslie is a historian at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.
Mr. PAUL LESLIE (Nicholls State University): These oil companies have basically, from Huey Long all the way up to Bobby Jindal, these corporations have paid for the social services that we have in Louisiana.
BURNETT: What Louisianans get out of the bargain are low property taxes and good oilfield jobs. Today, a young man out of high school can make $70,000 a year offshore, with full benefits, working only half the year.
But Louisiana has paid dearly for its oil wealth, long before the present Gulf oil calamity.
More than 50,000 wells have been drilled onshore in coastal Louisiana. Experts estimate that mineral extraction is directly responsible for a third of all the coastal wetland loss and land subsidence.
Paul Leslie says under the trade-off, Big Oil still rules.
Mr. LESLIE: This is one of the things. When you look at Louisiana, the oil companies do everything to that state legislature except refine it. They get their way - anything and everything that they want.
At least that may have been the case until April 20th, when the Deepwater Horizon blew up. Could the 2010 Gulf oil spill be a game-changer in Louisiana, the way the 1969 Santa Barbara spill was to California?
Chris John is president of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which represents the interests of the industry in Louisiana.
Unidentified Man: How do you reestablish the trust?
Mr. CHRIS JOHN (Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association): It's going to be very difficult and it's going to take a long time. But I believe that the industry has created a good relationship with Louisiana. We'll continue to operate, because the state of Louisiana is dependent on this industry, and this industry is very dependent on the state of Louisiana.
BURNETT: The legislative session that ended this week offers a clue as to whether the energy industry has lost any clout in Baton Rouge. After the monstrous impact of the spill became clear, hydrocarbon lobbyists went to work inside the marble halls of the state capitol, built by Governor Long with his oil-engorged state treasury.
(Soundbite of gavel pounding)
Unidentified Man #2: The House will come to order. The clerk will open the sheet for roll call. Members vote your machines, please.
BURNETT: There were three major bills this session that dealt with oil and gas issues. In one gambit, the Louisiana Chemical Association backed a Senate bill that tried to kill Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic because of its frequent lawsuits against chemical companies.
John Maginnis, editor of LouisianaPolitics.com, says the bill was gaining steam until April 20th.
Mr. JOHN MAGINNIS (Editor, LouisianaPolitics.com): But by the time it came up, just the whole idea that you're going to, you know, shut down a law clinic that's suing on behalf of poor people against the big oil companies, well, that just didn't have legs, and that bill was shot down in committee.
BURNETT: This was the industry's only defeat this session. The two other bills with more profound consequences for oil and gas went down in flames. One would have imposed a fee on offshore oil and natural gas processed in Louisiana. The other would have allowed the state to hire private attorneys to pursue lawsuits related to the Gulf oil disaster.
Legislative leaders say both bills were bad public policy. Dissidents see darker forces at work.
Mr. FOSTER CAMPBELL (Public Service Commissioner): Our problem in Louisiana, we've had too many politicians cozy with the big oil companies, without a doubt. Too many duck hunting trips, too many campaign contributions, too many steaks at Chris's Steakhouse.
BURNETT: Foster Campbell is the public service commissioner from North Louisiana - the job Huey Long once held. Campbell says the oil spill provides a rare moment of opportunity for Louisiana's elected representatives - state and federal.
Mr. CAMPBELL: And not just jumping on BP. Anybody can jump on a dog that's down. But let's ask the other boys to the party. Why don't you ask Chevron and Shell and Exxon? Now, we know the well's out of control and that belongs to BP. But you guys were out of control when you tore up our coast. Why dont you pay for some of the damage you've caused to the coast in Louisiana?
BURNETT: Mr. Campbell concludes: It must be hard to take their money and then kick 'em in the seat.
John Burnett, NPR News.