GRAND ISLE, La.—If oil went looking for a hideout, it couldn't do much better than Barataria Bay. The water here is dark and muddy, the perfect camouflage for sludge. BP's sea-floor spew only becomes visible as it runs aground. When the oil hits grass, it looks like Nestle's Quik and adheres like Vaseline. Peering down from a helicopter 300 feet in the air, the containment boom that's supposedly holding the slicks back seems purely decorative, a bright orange border for these tiny, chocolate-rimmed specks of land.
On Wednesday morning, I scout out the spill with Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand. The Jefferson sheriff's office performs regular airborne goop-spotting missions, passing along the oil's latest coordinates to the unified command center in Houma, La. The BP spill's relentless growth breeds helplessness, Normand says. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, you could at least pick out visible markers of progress. But with the leaking oil refusing to abate, it's hard to aspire to much more than maintaining the status quo. On the beach at Grand Isle, scores of day laborers armed with garden rakes push oil-infested sand into plastic bags, then pile the bags into dumpsters. (There are four or five sand-sifting machines that do the job more quickly, but that's not enough machinery to scour the whole beach.) Tomorrow they'll do the same thing all over again.
Oil-drenched sand is not an environmental cataclysm—compared with the fragile marshes, the beach is easier to clean and less likely to erode. In preventing the marshes from getting overrun by oil, Grand Isle—one of Louisiana's few remaining barrier islands—is essentially a more effective counterpart to the ubiquitous orange containment boom. Nevertheless, oil is getting past this natural barrier. As further defense against the marauding ooze, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has pushed for the construction of sand berms, and Jefferson Parish has rolled out a plan to stave off oil using sunken barges.
If the wetlands go, Louisiana will go along with them. The state's seafood industry would crater, and every bit of marsh that's lost means a higher storm surge when a hurricane careens through the Gulf of Mexico. But the state's wetlands were dying long before the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Indeed, as you fly over Grand Isle and Barataria Bay, the oil spill seems almost irrelevant. On the helicopter ride over from New Orleans, the Jefferson Parish police officers on board seem less awed by the scope of the oil spill than by the "amazing land loss" in southeastern Louisiana over the last few decades.
As every schoolboy in Louisiana learns, the state loses a football field's worth of wetlands every 38 minutes. The Times-Picayune's edifying and terrifying interactive feature "The Rise and Disappearance of Southeast Louisiana" does a clear, concise job explaining the causes. Levees built to rein in the Mississippi River cut off the supply of sediment needed to replenish coastal land. Canals cut for boat traffic and natural gas pipelines invited in marsh-killing saltwater. And Hurricanes Katrina and Rita accelerated the destruction. The result: Fishing camps that used to be on canals are cut off entirely from land, brown pelicans and white ibis confined to the tiniest of islands, and once-thriving wetlands like Barataria Bay transformed into open water. New Orleans itself, the Times-Picayune warns, could be entirely surrounded by water in 10 years if today's erosion rates continue.
At worst, BP's millions of gallons of oil per day will exacerbate what already seemed like runaway destruction. At best, the oil spill could generate the money and the political will needed to affect substantive change—Jindal has made coastal restoration his cause célèbre and President Obama has vowed "that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."
Regardless of whether that turns out to be an empty promise, it seems undeniable that the oil and gas industry has in many ways contributed to the marshes' sorry state. Even so, it's hard to find anyone in Louisiana who supports Obama's six-month hiatus on offshore drilling. For all the visceral disgust that brown sludge in the grass can generate, the economic disaster of a depleted energy sector is a more immediate concern. Oil might be destroying the marshes here, but when our helicopter touches down in Grand Isle, it's at the Exxon heliport.