Profit for Whom?: Oil Deregulation and the Southern Black Economy

Another BP oil spill could have ruinous effects on Black communities along the Gulf.

Photo credit:Blavity

| June 22 2019,

10:26 pm

On June 11, ten environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Department of the Interior for partially repealing safety regulations implemented by the Obama administration following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (also referred to as the BP Oil Spill).

In the case briefing, the environmental groups claim these safety regulations were designed to eliminate the flawed drilling practices that led to the 2010 disaster. The plaintiffs allege that undermining these rules increases the likelihood of future oil spills similar to the Deepwater Horizon Spill. The 2010 spill leaked roughly 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating over 43,000 square miles of ocean water and over 1,300 miles of Gulf shoreline. 

News coverage and research studies immediately following the Deepwater Horizon Spill vividly described the spill’s ecological damage (conservatively ranging from the deaths of billions of animals to the threat to coastal habitats). The spill also had widespread negative consequences for human populations living in the Gulf Region, and the possibility of another spill could be physically and economically ruinous for some of the most at-risk communities.

In the months following the 2010 spill, it was estimated that the Gulf of Mexico’s fishing industry lost approximately $247 million in revenueResearch surveys conducted by the Knowland Group in 2010 found that shortly after the spill, hotels in the Gulf Region experienced a surge in booking cancellations and increased difficulty in booking rooms at all. The economic fallout of another environmental crisis like this one could devastate cities like Mobile, Alabama, where the population is over 50% Black, and fishing and hospitality services propel its economy.

Black fishermen, often the descendants of former slaves forced to settle in undesirable coastal regions, work throughout the Gulf of Mexico. In areas off the coast of Louisiana, Black fisherman have reported that BP’s compensation for fishing losses ($5,000 per month) is, at best, half of what they made prior to the oil spill. If another spill were to occur, limited compensation of this nature could deteriorate the economies of Black neighborhoods in Mobile.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Georgia Avenue, Bayview and Pinewood have some of the highest relative employment rates for fishing and agriculture in Mobile. With the exception of Pinewood, these neighborhoods have lower median incomes than the median income of Mobile itself. As 30.9% of Black people in Mobile live in poverty (more than three percentage points higher than the national average), lost or diminished wages due to a depressed fishing industry can exacerbate already strained financial situations.

The effects of another oil spill would likely have even more pronounced impacts on Black workers in the hospitality industry. Initially, the Deepwater Horizon Spill temporarily boosted hospitality revenue in the Gulf Region, as first responders stayed in local hotels, but long-term tourism declined significantly.

"Because of the oil slick, the hotels are completely full of people dealing with that problem," Jim Hutchinson, then-assistant secretary for the Louisiana Office of Tourism, said to the Associated Press. A report commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association stated that travel to the Gulf Region could be hampered for the long term, as “travelers believe the impacts of the disaster will be felt for a long time.” Tourism limited by an oil spill could decimate the economies in the entirely Black neighborhoods along Interstate 165 (Gorgas, Owens, Orange Grove and Fisher) that employ at least 16% of their relative populations in hospitality services. Nearby South Crichton, which is 88% Black, employs 19% of its population in hospitality services.

There is also the chance that Black neighborhoods in Mobile will experience compounding economic effects from losses in both industries. Georgia Avenue is one of the majority Black neighborhoods that could be adversely affected by revenue losses in both fishing revenue and hospitality revenue. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that Georgia Avenue residents are about 400% more likely to be employed in agriculture and fishing, and about 100% more likely to be employed in hospitality, than the average Mobile resident. Damage to these two industries could worsen the fiscal security of Black people who already suffer from above average poverty rates. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health, Black Americans living below the poverty level are "three times more likely to report psychological distress" than those living above poverty.