In Louisiana, Covid-19 Has Achieved What Big Oil Protesters Could Not

When an oil and gas company desires to build a pipeline across the state of Louisiana, under sugar-cane field, pine forest and backyard, it does not rely on court orders or bureaucratic letters on corporate masthead. It does not demand compliance from the property owners it must inconvenience with spoil banks. Instead it sends a kind, pious young man to knock on each landowner’s front door, develop a relationship and make a deal.

Until two months ago, James Howell was right-of-way manager for an independent land company contracted by energy companies. When Covid-19 hit, Howell was working on 10 projects, for pipelines running between two and 300 miles long. Howell pulled titles, filed permits and assessed property values. But his most important duty was to earn the trust of strangers. He preferred to do it face to face. ‘‘I want to build a personal relationship,’’ he says, ‘‘so they don’t see a big bad oil company but just another guy. I’m trying to find a way to get in the door and relate to them.’’

Landowners can be skeptical when a man holding a business card and a folder full of official documents comes calling. Howell has never been greeted by a shotgun, though he has heard of a colleague who has. But like a bartender or a reporter, Howell has found that most people are flattered to find someone to listen to their troubles. ‘‘People want to talk. If you’re honest about what you need, you’ll do well.’’

Howell has encountered protesters, particularly during the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which carries crude oil through the ancient cypress swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin, one of the nation’s richest ecological habitats, and under the bayou that provides drinking water to the United Houma Nation, before terminating at the Mississippi River. At one job site, Howell was greeted by chants of ‘‘Get your oil out of our boil!’’ from protesters who dressed as crawfish and chained themselves inside crawfish pots. ‘‘I was pretty impressed by that,’’ Howell says. ‘‘It was creative.’’

Covid-19 has achieved what the protesters could not: In early March, Howell’s pipeline projects were suspended. The rest of the month, Howell and his document specialist — his wife, Whitney — sat alone in their office in downtown Baton Rouge, ‘‘buttoning everything up.’’ They wanted to make sure that when the shutdown ended, however many months or years from now, they would be able to unlock the dusty office and immediately resume work.

Howell is 33; he has been doing right-of-way for 13 years. Just about his whole family is in right-of-way. He is unsure whether his three children will do right-of-way; in quarantine, his oldest, a 5-year-old, informed him that when he grows up, he wants to catch poisonous snakes and create antivenom. Howell’s parents had always advised him to save up six months’ expenses, because the industry ‘‘crashes all the time.’’ In February, Howell started, on the side, a commercial electric company called I.H.S.E., which stands for ‘‘In His Service Enterprises.’’ It began operations five days too late to qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program. Howell had hoped to have hired 50 people already. Now all but one of his contracts have been canceled, and his eight employees work on that single job. He is worried about his father, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, getting sick. But Howell is better off than most of the people he knows, and most of Louisiana.

A refinery in Baton Rouge, La. on May 8.
Eli Durst for The New York Times

In a state dominated — economically, politically, culturally — by the oil and gas industry, unemployment has jumped to 14.5 percent. Trade groups have been quick to argue that the industry is facing an existential threat. A report from the National Ocean Industries Association (N.O.I.A.) estimates that 50,000 jobs will be lost this year across the gulf, 11,000 in Louisiana. As a point of comparison, before March, the entire American coal industry employed 50,000 people. Tourism, one of New Orleans’s largest industries, has zeroed out, and flights into its new billion-dollar airport run at 3 percent of typical volume. The president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association says that 5 percent of shrimp boats are leaving dock; the chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force estimates that demand for oysters is down ‘‘like 99 percent.’’ In April, the state’s tax and fee collections were nearly half a billion dollars below expectations, a drop the state treasurer described as ‘‘surreal.’’ May, he was certain, would be much worse.

The trouble started on March 8, three days before Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a public-health emergency, when what local oilmen refer to as the ‘‘measuring contest’’ between the Saudis and the Russians began, which helped push the price of oil negative in April. Below about $37, it is unprofitable to drill in Louisiana. As Howell put it, ‘‘It’s low-market oil plus don’t-drive-anywhere oil.’’ By May, more than three-quarters of operators had taken steps to reduce production. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (L.O.G.A.), while petitioning the state for tax cuts and protection from environmental lawsuits, predicted that about half the state’s 33,714 oil and gas wells could be shut down (or ‘‘shut in,’’ as the trade puts it) in the coming months. A shut-in well can be cost-prohibitive to reopen, which means much of this oil might never be extracted; N.O.I.A. anticipates it will take three years to return to pre-Covid production levels. On some of the larger rigs that continued to operate, staffing was reduced by more than two-thirds, the rigs having shed anyone unessential to production.

When L.O.G.A., which represents the state’s independent producers and their service companies, surveyed its members, more than half the respondents said their companies would ‘‘likely’’ go bankrupt. Nearly a quarter of the industry’s employees have lost their jobs, and another quarter of the work force was expected to lose them by midsummer. Eighty-eight percent of L.O.G.A.’s members were ‘‘extremely concerned’’ about the future of Louisiana’s largest industry.

Louisianans worried about air and water pollution, wetlands loss, rising sea levels and the future habitability of the southern third of the state have long expressed extreme concern that the industry will survive, at least in its current form. In Louisiana, solar power has been cheaper than natural gas, but the state ranks only 39th in the country in solar energy use. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management published a pair of studies in February showing that wind energy held even greater economic potential; one demonstrated how the Gulf of Mexico could be made into ‘‘an industrial center for a new offshore wind economy.’’ A single project would generate about 4,500 jobs and nearly half a billion dollars in contributions to G.D.P. This represented ‘‘a unique opportunity for the existing manufacturing industry, which has historically supported the oil and gas industry.’’ Much of the old energy industry, in other words, could be redeployed in the new one. ‘‘In 20 or 30 years,’’ says Erik Milito, N.O.I.A.’s president, ‘‘you’ll probably have wind farms everywhere.’’ But to get them sooner — before oil and gas production in the gulf peaks around 2031, as the industry estimates — would require a revolution in Louisiana politics or the intervention of a higher power.

‘‘I’m a big believer in the Lord,’’ James Howell says, ‘‘and he does things for a certain reason. This is a frightening time, but I’ve seen blessings come out of it: My neighborhood looks like it did in the ’80s and ’90s. There are kids outside, sprinklers in front yards, bike rides. Everyone’s smiling a little more.’’

Howell does not believe that the collapse of the oil and gas industry is part of God’s plan. ‘‘Oil makes everything,’’ he said. ‘‘Yes, we’ll be coming back.’’ In the meantime, his locked office in Baton Rouge sits, the files in order, the survey permissions cleanly stacked and awaiting signature. Howell hopes that ‘‘whenever anyone feels safe having a stranger inside his house again,’’ he will be that stranger.

Nathaniel Rich, a writer at large for the magazine, is the author of “Losing Earth: A Recent History.”

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