How Many Oil Jobs Are There Really? | Crooked Media
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June 17, 2022
How Many Oil Jobs Are There Really?

In This Episode

Today on Hot Take, Amy and Mary talk to Sara Sneath, New Orleans-based investigative journalist of Floodlight, about exactly what kind of jobs the fossil fuel industry creates and the quality of those jobs. Plus all the ways Big oil undermines labor rights.

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TRANSCRIPT

 

 

Amy Westervelt: Hey, hot cakes. Welcome to Hot Take. I’m Amy Westervelt.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: And I’m Mary Annaïse Heglar, and I’m really excited about this week’s episode.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, theme. This week, we’re going to talk about one of the most pervasive stories that the fossil fuel industry loves to tell about itself, that it’s a job creator. But the media rarely asks what kinds of jobs they create and what sorts of impact they actually have.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Exactly. Those kind of like important questions.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. I feel like McDonald’s could be like, we’re a great jobs creator, you know?

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Right. But people kind of ask questions about that. And, you know, I kind of wonder if that’s because we interact with McDonald’s and, you know, you don’t really interact with people who work in the oil and gas industry while they’re on the job. Like those aren’t jobs that people see perform very often. And we have one of my favorite people, like on Earth, but especially when it comes to talking about this stuff and who actually has spent a lot of time seeing what these jobs are like up close. Investigative journalist, alligator expert and friend of mine, Sara Sneed. She’s based in New Orleans and she’s written extensively about fossil fuel jobs, especially those offshore. But a couple of things I want to make sure that we spell out before Sara joins us for one. I think when most people think about fossil fuel jobs, they’re thinking of coal miners, which is actually a pretty small percentage of fossil fuel jobs.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, anymore it is. They’ve been shedding folks pretty quickly over the last decade. So today there are about 46,000 coal miners in the country and somewhere between 150 to 250000 oil and gas workers. Although if you believe the American Petroleum Institute, it’s like 10 million jobs. Seriously, that’s the that’s how big the gap.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, I don’t really believe that.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. I know. I wonder why.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: But, yeah, that’s exactly the kind of gap that I’ve come to expect between the actual facts and what the API says. Yeah. And at the same time, I think most people understand why coal mining jobs suck.

 

Amy Westervelt: Right? Even though it was kind of romanticized as like a tough guy job and has a lot of this like Americana identity stuff going on, I don’t think anyone was ever under the impression that it wasn’t dangerous to be a coal miner in a whole bunch of ways, from mines collapsing to black lung disease to just being in the dark all day long.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not super desirable, but I think the rest of the fossil fuel jobs are less understood. But before we get into why those jobs suck and we’ll talk to Sara all about that. Amy, can you give us a quick overview for those who might not know what other types of jobs there are in the fossil fuel industry?

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, there’s a pretty wide variety from geologists who kind of helped to find oil reserves and petroleum engineers who help to kind of map out how they’re going to drill and where. But usually when industry spokespeople are talking about jobs, they’re talking about blue collar jobs. So pipeline workers, roughnecks are these are the guys that work on oil drilling pads and rigs in the oil fields, on land offshore workers who are obviously offshore waste haulers. So these are folks who are taking waste from the oilfield to wherever the waste site is. And truck drivers who are doing everything from driving around radioactive waste to driving around tankers full of oil. Then you’ve got, you know, folks who work on the transport ships and all of those kinds of of jobs, too. So, you know, there is there’s quite a variety there, but almost all of them are pretty dangerous. So I mentioned radioactive waste there. That’s just one thing that there’s been more and more kind of information about recently, that there is a high level of radioactive material in particularly fracking waste, but also a lot of oil drilling waste, too. And like, you know, someone has to make sure that waste gets removed from a site loaded into a tank on a truck. And then someone has to drive that truck full of waste radioactive waste to someplace and dump it in a safe way. And when I’ve talked to people who have worked on doing that job, they have told me that there’s very much a culture of like, I’m a tough guy, I don’t need to wear a hazmat suit kind of thing. So no surprise, we see like a huge, huge spike in cancer rates in folks who are doing that job.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: I don’t need to wear a hazmat suit when I’m handling radioactive waste.

 

Amy Westervelt: Which is not safe, obviously. But there’s also a bunch of legislative stuff around this, too, where like. They play the same safety measures to the trucks that haul radioactive waste that they do to the trucks that haul like grocery delivery orders.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Okay. So radioactive waste is the same type of stuff that we like are worried about from nuclear facilities. The same waste is present in fossil fuels. I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago myself. So I definitely don’t think most people know that. Not because I’m like, smart anybody, but because I live and breathe the stuff and like, yeah, but it’s not regulated at all in the fossil.

 

Amy Westervelt: No. They have a bunch of exemptions for regulations that are really wild. Yeah. There’s a reporter in Pennsylvania, Justin Noble, who’s done a whole bunch of of reporting the last few years on that. And I think he’s working on a on a book about it. But yeah, it’s really some of the stuff that he has uncovered is just it’s hard to believe that this has been allowed, but it has. So, yeah. And then, you know, of course, offshore you have all all of the normal risks that you would have, like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean in general. But then, you know, there are these blowouts that can happen. There are maintenance issues that can happen. It’s really easy to get injured doing these jobs, you know, and then like in most cases, if you’re working on a pipeline or you’re working offshore, you’re you’re in pretty cramped quarters. So, you know, something like COVID comes along and like, forget it, everybody’s gotten sick. So that’s just like a few of the things that we can talk about with, you know, working conditions on on rigs and pipelines. And there was a time when, you know, similar to coal mining, it was like, okay, like these are tough jobs. They’re hard, they’re dangerous, but you get paid really good money. And it’s like a lifelong, lifelong job. There’s major job security there and the company looks after you. That is just not the case anymore. I mean, I think I think that, you know, we’ve seen with the the coal industry is reticence to actually pay out on black lung like, you know, how how that goes. But the fossil fuel industry has not even, like, made the promises that the coal industry did. I mean, they are laying off workers right and left. They are all about replacing workers with machines. They are all about covering their own asses with liability and getting around, you know, workman’s comp and stuff like that too. So like, none of the ways that they actually treat workers line up with this whole like were this amazing jobs creator story that they like to tell.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. So we’re going to get into all of that with Sara. But now that we have a better understanding of the white swath of fossil fuel jobs. Let’s get Sara on in.

 

Amy Westervelt: That’s right. It’s time to talk about climate.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Welcome, Sara, investigative journalist extraordinaire and gator expert. Thank you so much for doing this. First of all, since you know all things alligator, what do you call an alligator in a vest?

 

Sara Sneath: An investigator.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Bitch, Really? It’s just like, no hesitation. You’re so smart. What happens when an alligator drives a boat?

 

Sara Sneath: I don’t know.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: It becomes a navigator.

 

Sara Sneath: That’s good. That’s a good one.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: There.

 

Sara Sneath: You got me.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: This is gonna be harder than I thought.

 

Amy Westervelt: Amazing. Okay, so Sara, part of the reason that we wanted to have you on is because we wanted to talk about this very pervasive myth that the fossil fuel industry tells the world about how much it creates jobs. I’m sure we’re, like, going to get a whole nother round of it as the midterms start to move forward. And, you know, like, I think there was a time when the fossil fuel industry could reasonably say that they provided good paying jobs. But I feel like that has become less and less true over the years. So I’m curious, you know, based on all of the the many stories you’ve reported on this subject, what you think about the quality or lack thereof of offshore drilling jobs and other jobs in the industry and how safe they actually are and how like how great they actually are.

 

Sara Sneath: Oh, I love this question. Also, you’re exactly right, Amy, to say that at one point in time they did have the legs to stand on when they said that it’s really hard. Just like with all offshore data, it’s really hard to parse out, you know, how many jobs there actually are. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Enforcement, Betsy, is what their acronyms acronym is. But I might be mixing up a couple of the words there, but they report the number of offshore jobs and man hours worked. They don’t list it in like staff positions. And that’s in part because most of these jobs are contractor jobs.

 

Amy Westervelt: Job security. Job security.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah, I’ll get to that. I’ll get to that in a little bit more. I’ll get to that a little bit more about how offshore companies avoid legal liability if people get hurt by using contractors. That is actually, you know, one of the reasons why they use contractors when it comes to jobs. So we’re looking at man hours worked, we’re not looking at actual positions, but the pipe was probably in like around 2014. And since that, offshore jobs have dropped by about 40%. And in large part that’s because of automation. So they will say a lot of other reasons why this is the case, but in large part it’s because of automation. And if you look at industry reports, they do, you know, brag about how pretty recently one of the first unmanned drilling rigs, you know, was drilling the for its first well and whatnot. So, you know, they they are very proud of their automation while at the same time, like you’re saying, talking about how many jobs they provide.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Can you say that about like the contracting out?

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah. So so contractors are not legally liable. Criminally liable if someone dies on a offshore rig. So I’m going to get some numbers and stuff. I think it’s like 2013. There were three Filipino offshore workers who were killed on a rig and it was pretty criminal when you like, you know, just in the definition of the word, as someone who’s like just, you know, just egregious, it was pretty criminal. And you looked at like they had the reason why they died was there was an explosion and the explosion was, you know, caused by this gas, this flammable gas that was in the air that was that caught on fire. And the meter they had, like these meters that they were supposed to use to detect offshore light or to tend to flammable gas. And the meters, there’s two meters on the drill ship and neither of them were working. And they said to hang it up like it was a decoration. That’s what the company had told the workers to do. And, you know, they the government tried to go after them for criminal manslaughter and they were unable to do so because the lawyers for those companies, you know, use this defense that only the operator is legally liable and the operator would be the the company that leases the land offshore from the government. So that’s what the operators. So that’s the big that’s the big people like Shell and BP. Those big companies are what an operator is and no higher like a contract worker company that will come in and do all the work on the rig. And those companies are not this in this case with the three Filipino workers. The company’s name was Black Elk, and those companies are not criminally liable.

 

Amy Westervelt: That’s super interesting because when the fossil fuel industry was was kind of lobbying for various things in COVID relief, one of them was a liability loophole that some people thought might be used to kind of protect them from getting sued for other things. Like, like past climate change things. But but like the thing they really focused on was trying to make sure that workers could not sue them for putting them at unreasonable risk of COVID, which I also thought was like a big, you know, like, yeah, they really care so much about workers in their story. I think it was they they put a limit on it of 5 to 10 years that they could not be sued for any like lingering side effects of COVID. And you know, at the same time they were like not really accurately reporting COVID numbers. They were putting people in really close quarters, like on boats and and man camps and stuff. So yeah, yeah.

 

Sara Sneath: Yes. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was calling the U.S. Coast Guard, you know, somewhat frequently to try to get the number of offshore workers that had COVID. And just at a certain point, they just stopped telling me the numbers and they told me that I would have to go to a federal another federal agency. I can’t remember which agency that was, the CDC or something like that to get those numbers. And I was like, Yeah, I’m not going to get through. I mean, I tried, but I did not get through to them for those same numbers where we have a we have a local New Orleans Coast Guard office that, you know, it’s much easier to call and actually get some on the phone with. Yeah. So so I definitely experienced that aspect of it.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: I want to talk more about like the layoffs and the lack of permanence. But y’all mentioned man camps and I’m not sure everybody knows what that is. So just really quickly, could you explain what a man camp is?

 

Amy Westervelt: It’s just like such a weird term that’s that’s come up because I mean it’s it is kind of what it sounds like. It’s a bunch of men camped out together in like small lodging areas. So so basically, like when they’re building a pipeline, you know, it’s it’s mostly temporary workers who are brought in from all over the place and they are put up in temporary housing, which is often trailers, and they are put into pretty cramped quarters. It’s like three or four people to a room. They often will like rotate schedules if there’s so if there’s like two beds in, in a room, like someone’s sleeping in those beds at all times and they’ve been linked to a lot of crime as well, especially with missing and murdered indigenous women. When these pipelines are being built on or near tribal land in general, I think we can all imagine what kinds of things might happen when like, you know, dozens of men are crammed together in in a tight area with like money to burn and nothing to do and no one really like overseeing anything.

 

Sara Sneath: And they’re not from that and they’re not from the area regular brought in from somewhere else. I was just going to mention one other thing about so those those those Filipino workers who died offshore in 2013, they were actually found to be being housed in a man camp type situation in south Louisiana. And they found that they were their passports were being taken from them. And when they were back onshore and they weren’t allowed to leave the facility and they were just like allowed to go to church and that’s it. So pretty sad conditions.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Real sharecropper-y.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. It’s very much like what happens with farmworkers in a lot of places too. Same kind of thing where like labor camps and then the person who owns them will take your papers and. Oh yeah, not awesome. Not exactly the like Wheel of Workers story that the industry likes to.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: These don’t sound like jobs I would want. Yeah, I mean it’s there’s honestly not that many of them like you were saying, there’s a lot of contract positions which are anything but permanent. And also there’s been a lot of layoffs. They got a lot of attention for laying people off during the pandemic, but they’re also laying people off before the pandemic.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah. I would say that the the it’s still true that you can get a good paying job without a college education offshore. You know, you’re not it’s it’s really hard to find a job that pays that well that that doesn’t require a college degree. But, you know, other things I’ve heard about that, though, is that then if you get you know, you get injured, one of these workers gets injured, then their their chances for finding a different job that brings them the same amount of money is really limited because, you know, they can’t do something hard labor like they were doing before and they don’t have the college education still or some kind of certificate that they could, you know, that’s that’s transferable. You know, and and like we’re alluding to, the jobs are very dangerous. And that and despite the drops in the number of people who work offshore, the number of people being injured and killed has not dropped off.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm. Right.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah. I’ll just add that, you know, a large part of of the work I’ve done around this is just how little we know about. The people who are injured and who die offshore. The you know, the agency basi they don’t report everyone who dies offshore. They have kind of workarounds. Like if a person dies in state waters, for example, which in Florida and Texas is up to ten miles offshore, and in Louisiana, it’s three miles offshore. So if someone dies while working in those waters, they’re not counted in federal numbers. If someone dies and transport to an offshore facility, they’re not counted in the federal numbers. If someone dies of a health emergency like a heart attack, they’re not counted in those numbers. So a lot of my reporting has been about how how that leads to such a severe undercounting of the number of people who die offshore. And then you hear from, you know, personal lawyers, injury lawyers who say that when something does happen, as soon as those people come to shore, they have oil company lawyers right there on the dock waiting for them to talk to them, to get the statement and get, you know, get them to say what happened in front of the company and to the company lawyer before the the injured worker has a time to has time to like lawyer up themselves, you know, with someone to defend them or represent them. So, you know, that can also lead to a lowering of the number of people who say that they’re they’re injured when they come back to shore.

 

Amy Westervelt: And then at the other end of the spectrum, every year, the industry over reports its job numbers to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and then goes back like three months later and downgrades that number.

 

Sara Sneath: I understand also that they exaggerate their economic impact, you know, in a similar way by secondary jobs or, you know, like counting maybe how workers might go to a grocery store or something like that as like an increase to an extent that is beyond what like, you know, like a few employees could possibly do.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Like economic stimulus to surrounding communities.

 

Sara Sneath: Yes, yes, yes, exactly.

 

Amy Westervelt: Exactly. But like more and more of the research is showing that they have little to to no to to in some cases, negative impact on on economic development in an area depending on the type of project, I think. Sarah, I know you mentioned that these Filipino workers before, which which makes me think of of, you know, your reporting on offshore rigs, flying foreign flags and, you know, just kind of the extent to which the industry, at least in the U.S., likes to talk about how many domestic American jobs they’re creating. And I wonder I don’t know if that if that holds true, given how many of the rigs in the Gulf are actually registered to other countries.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah. I wish I knew. Like how many people who work offshore are from where? Because mostly what we get is anecdotes and like, you know, in the conversations I have with workers, but as far as like getting exact numbers of how many people are employed in the Gulf who are American, I’m unsure the part about flying foreign flags is another way to evade liability, just like just like using contractors. And so they fly the foreign flags, not because the ship is from a foreign country and necessarily from that foreign country, I should say. It’s not necessarily because the ship was built in the company in the country that they’re flying the flag from. And it’s not because their workers are from the country where they’re flying the flag from. They pick out countries that have looser labor laws and looser environmental laws and then like and then they’re able to, you know, fly flags from those countries and they’re able to pay people less by doing that. And they’re able to get around other regulations, US regulations, by flying those flags.

 

Amy Westervelt: So do they like set up holding companies or subsidiaries in those countries to be able to do that or.

 

Sara Sneath: No, they don’t have to do that.

 

Amy Westervelt: They can just say, we’re going to fly this flag and that’s the laws we’re going to abide by because we’re in the ocean.

 

Sara Sneath: Yes, there’s there are there are countries that are that are considered to be flags of convenience. And those countries that are considered to be flags of convenience are countries that don’t require they can just be they can just be registered. You know, a company can just register their ship there and they can take the ship anywhere. Yeah, they can take the ship anywhere. Yeah, that’s.

 

Amy Westervelt: Wild. Wow.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Wow.

 

Sara Sneath: Oh, I guess the other thing I wanted to say was that they also, when they’re registering their ships and these drill ships and these countries that are considered flags of convenience, they also can be protected from using their like like a being transparent and what the company is that owns the ship. It can be hard for them. It can be hard to track down who the actual owner is because they register in such a way that it can be difficult to to to pin that down.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: I’m curious, what are some of the. Choose that, you know, or consider these flags of convenience.

 

Sara Sneath: Liberia is one of them. Marshall Islands, I think, is another.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: The one that’s going under water? Wow.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. The one that’s like like sinking from climate change right now.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, my God.

 

Sara Sneath: It’s in that story I did for HuffPost earlier this year. I think I think I have a list of a few of the countries, but I think Bahamas is another one. Yeah, yeah. There’s like some worker, international worker groups that keep a list of like the flags of convenience. And if you over play that with the with, you know, the drill ships in the Gulf, you see a lot of like over you see a lot of overlap with which flags are flying and which countries are considered to be flags of convenience.

 

Amy Westervelt: Wild We’ll definitely stick a link to that story in the show notes because it’s like it’s crazy.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: In addition to being a investigative journalist and alligator expert, you’re also a pig wrestler. Like one of my favorite Sara Sneath stories that she wants wrestled a pig into the back of a truck after a bike ride. So, yeah, a real quick question about pigs. Where do boars get their color?

 

Sara Sneath: I don’t know. Where?

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: You can ask Amy for help.

 

Amy Westervelt: God, I’m useless.

 

Sara Sneath: Amy, help.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: You’ve gotten much better at this, Amy, actually.

 

Amy Westervelt: Where do boars get their color? Uh. I don’t know.

 

Sara Sneath: Pigment

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: They get it from pigment.

 

Sara Sneath: I got it. I got it right at the last minute.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Pigment. Oh, insert air horn.

 

Amy Westervelt: That’s amazing. Amazing.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Well, what do you call an alligator that sneaks up and bites you from behind?

 

Amy Westervelt: Mm hmm. Traitor Gator.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: What? Oh, I get it. Because it’s like betrayed you. No, it’s a tailgator.

 

Amy Westervelt: Oh a tailgator. Okay.

 

Sara Sneath: Hmm.

 

Amy Westervelt: That makes more sense.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: You guys are, like, knocking these out of the park. I’m a little like, I’m going to have to up my game.

 

Sara Sneath: I should maybe at some point say I’m not an alligator expert. But I did write one story about alligators.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: If you say that we’re going to cut it. Amy has written stories about bats, so she’s considered a bat expert as far as I’m concerned.

 

Amy Westervelt: So I’m a bat expert.

 

Amy Westervelt: [AD]

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Another aspect of fossil fuels and labor connection that’s often overlooked is the usage of prison labor.

 

Amy Westervelt: I have heard of prison labor being used for emergency cleanup in in the case of of major spills and things like that. But I haven’t personally reported on that.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: You know, it wasn’t that long ago that there was convict leasing in coal mines in Alabama and Tennessee and probably other states, too. And it’s just not very well reported. And convict leasing is extremely similar to slavery.

 

Amy Westervelt: So what like they would the the mine owners would like could like lease. I’m using air quotes because we’re talking about human beings here and that’s gross convicts for labor.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: So and so offenses which people would be arrested it would be like incredibly absurd. It would be like loitering. Right. So like you’re you’re arrested for being unemployed and you can you know, these were obviously mostly black people. It’s very rare that white people got arrested for these sorts of things. And all of that was happening in the immediate aftermath of slavery. So it was very clearly just a replacement for slavery, like where do we get our cheap labor now? Let’s just write people from getting jobs and then arrest them for not having jobs and now they’re in prison and we can force them to work. And, you know, like Angola was was it sugarcane or was it cotton?

 

Amy Westervelt: Cotton. Cotton and corn. Yeah.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Which is also interesting because argue that fossil fuels and prisons became big business or became really pervasive right around the same time at the abolition of slavery. And now we need to abolish them both if we really want to kill white supremacy dead. And I wonder if either of you have come across prison labor or anything like it in your reporting?

 

Sara Sneath: I haven’t in my reporting, but Scalawag did a story about prison labor at the offshore service vessel sites on land and in south Louisiana. I think Kali Berlin wrote that story.

 

Amy Westervelt: Wow.

 

Sara Sneath: That’s even more disturbing when you consider how dangerous it is. You know, it’s disturbing either way, but it’s disturbing that you could not only get not paid, but then you could be injured enough that you can’t work ever in the future.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm. Yeah, it’s really interesting in, you know, in Louisiana, going down like cancer alley and down the river, you see fossil fuel infrastructure right where plantations used to be or in some cases where they still are like, it’ll be right next to it. There’s been a lot written about it, but my favorite thing written about it was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s a, it’s a novel and there’s a chapter in it about the Birmingham coal mines. It’s a really beautiful novel and it traces the family lineage from before slavery until like the 1980s. And one of the chapters is about a character who winds up getting, you know, working in the Birmingham coal mines. And it’s he’s the immediate generation right after slavery.

 

Amy Westervelt: It’s kind of related to that. On our on one of our recent episodes, we had Adam Searcher from The Atlantic on, and we were talking about how politicians in red states with a lot of fossil fuel extraction are beholden to the fossil fuel industry. And so the like a lot of times the politicians themselves or pundits will say, so they have to, you know, keep doing, you know, what the fossil fuel industry wants because most of their constituents work for the industry. But, you know, we know they also do a really good job of doing things like funding local arts events and finding jobs fast and in Louisiana, for example. So I’m just curious, like what you’ve seen as a climate reporter who lives in an oil and gas state like Louisiana, what have you seen kind of playing out around that, that relationship that the industry has to the state government?

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Well, really quickly, just in there, in Shell’s defense for sponsoring Jazzfest, they had plastic hitting bins.

 

Sara Sneath: Oh, Mary, I got to I got to send you a link to a story. The link to a story about that one.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: You know I’m being sarcastic, right?

 

Sara Sneath: Oh, I know you are. But I mean, but this is crazy. They, you know, probably three years ago, Shell sent us I was working at the local newspaper at the time, and Shell sent us a news release saying that the bottles that you recycle at Jazz Fest will be used to build an island that’s going to protect Louisiana coast against coastal erosion. It’s going to be used to build a plastic island.

 

Amy Westervelt: Oh, my God.

 

Sara Sneath: So I went to One Shell. What’s it called? One Shell Square. Their building. Their building right there in the CBD. And I went to their office and they showed me a little piece of turf, like Astroturf looking stuff made out of plastic bottles. And they told me that’s what they were going to you or that’s what they were going. To turn the plastic bottles into. And the whole thing sounded, yeah, pretty crazy to me, but I asked them for the name of the company that the contractor they were going to use. And then I called the contractor and they were like, Oh yeah, we have no contracts to to do this. They say that’s as far as they’ve gotten. They had actually gotten to rewriting the contract to actually do the thing that they were describing in their ads. That’s right. I mean, I don’t think that they thought that anyone would like really actually look into it too much. But then the other thing about it was, is that I work at the local newspaper, the time they ran an ad that said that they were going to use the bottles to turn into this island alongside the article online.

 

Amy Westervelt: Oh, my God.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, my gosh. That’s crazy. And I can hear the dogs in the background. So, you know, what’s the difference between a dog and a alligator?

 

Sara Sneath: I don’t know what.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: A dog’s bark is worse than its bite. Back to Amy’s original question.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah. He was originally question what was the. Oh yeah. State and influences. Yeah. So, so last year was my first year to cover the like cover the legislature completely during the legislative session here in Louisiana. And I don’t think that this has ever happened where they put a climate reporter, just like let a climate reporter like Rome free the Louisiana Illuminators, the one who I had the contract with to cover state lawmakers. And they just let me do like only environmental stories. And it was funding the Natural Resources Committees that make the decisions on legislation in Louisiana. They’re put in the smallest rooms and like I’m the only layer like reporter in the room, even though big, big stuff is happening here and Louisiana because we are, you know, where all the refineries are at and you know where all the LNG facilities are. They’re trying to put end like there whether they want to put up all the carbon capture as well. And so it felt strange to be like one of the few people like watching this from from a reporter position. And also strange that I had never I’m not a man, not of politics. Politics reporter i don’t come from that place. I never really reported too much on Louisiana politics before. This mostly just always the environment. And so I was being shocked over and over again by these things that other people were just other even reporters were just like, Oh, that’s normal. Like a lawmaker would introduce legislation and then the oil and gas lobbyist would explain the legislation that the oil that the lawmaker just introduced, like the oil and gas lobbyist, answers all the questions about what the legislation does and doesn’t do and the lawmaker doesn’t, you know, answer those questions and just yeah, just crazy stuff like that that it’s like really not it’s clear like who the legislation is coming from, you know, and who’s writing it and who’s and who’s got the most intel about what it’s going to do. So I definitely very much see that. And then with my new position that I started in November of last year with floodlight reporting on corporate influence at the state level is really, you know, my bread and butter. Now that’s what I do mostly. And so I’ve written a few stories this year about lawmakers who have passed legislation that benefits industry and themselves in different ways. Like us. I did a story about Senator Sharon Hewitt, who I believe she worked at Shell. She’s a long time Shell employee, and she before she became a lawmaker and her husband works for another company called Allergy Exploration. And in Louisiana, there are several what we count we call counties, parishes here. I think there’s like six or seven parishes that have coastal parishes that have sued oil and gas companies for worsening wetland erosion, which is a big thing because that that’s what protects us against hurricanes. Our wetlands are what protects against hurricanes. And so one of the companies sued is LG Exploration. And Senator Sharon Hewitt has worked on legislation, introduce legislation that would dismiss the lawsuits. And, you know, the company her husband works for Off the hook. And, you know, she’s also passed legislation that amends or changes the regulatory framework for carbon dioxide pipelines. And she did this with the help of Denbury, the company with the carbon dioxide pipeline that blew up in Mississippi and and sent all those people to the hospital. And, yeah, she introduced that legislation less than a week after that explosion happened. Actually.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: For the longest time, it felt like the only way that politicians talked about climate or even energy was through the jobs frame, which I get that that’s important. As long as we live in capitalism, people need jobs. But what would you like to see different in this midterm discussion on jobs and climate and energy? And that’s for both of you.

 

Sara Sneath: I mean, I just in general, I always just want to see accurate, transparent information given to people to help make their decisions. You know, and I think that it is true that this industry is shrinking. And, you know, this rhetoric around the fact that the Biden administration has blocked, you know, future leases offshore, that that is causing the gas prices to increase and that’s causing people to not have jobs. You know, it’s just wrong. It’s just really wrong. And like a lot of our Louisiana politicians are repeating it, especially the gas point, they’re saying that, you know, it’s because of. The leases that gas prices are increasing. And we’re not even talking about drilling, you know, because a company would would take years to do, you know, geological survey’s under water to make sure they find an oil deposit before they start drilling so that that would take years, you know, after they actually get the lease. So this isn’t something that would bring a bunch of, you know, oil onto the market right away. Even if they did, they did sell the leases. So it’s just wrong. And and it it is frustrating to spend so much time just trying to say what’s not true and sort of being able to give people the information they need to, you know, vote in the way that.

 

Amy Westervelt: Ryan.

 

Sara Sneath: Supports them. Then you’re just constantly combating what’s not true.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, the thing that irritates me about that is that I feel like even the politicians that are not kind of in the pocket of industry don’t know enough and seem to still not be willing to educate themselves enough to combat those talking points. You know. Like I’m not it’s it’s bad enough that sort of the industry is kind of out there saying this stuff and then they have a whole crop of politicians willing to repeat it. But there aren’t enough journalists who are not climate journalists that that know how gas pricing works enough to say that can’t be right and there aren’t enough politicians saying it either. So like I just to me, that’s been the most irritating thing to me is I’m like, it’s not that complicated. It’s not that hard to fact check. And I don’t understand why there’s not as much of an effort going towards rebutting that because honestly, I mean, totally honestly, the thing that would like the one thing that like Biden could do with the stroke of a pen that would have an immediate impact on gas prices is probably reinstate the export ban, but he’s not going to do it, you know.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: So it’s like we were talking about last week, Amy, about like the fossil fuel narrative is rarely ever questioned, very much like the police narrative.

 

Amy Westervelt: That’s right. Like people, I swear to God, having there’s all these news shows I keep seeing, having Mike Summers on, who’s the president of the American Petroleum Institute as though he is some kind of like unbiased third party expert on how gas pricing works. You know, as like, I just I just don’t I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t get it. I don’t understand, like, why that’s happening or why people aren’t taking it upon themselves to do like really just 5 minutes worth of Googling to figure it out. You know?

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: But activists are considered to have an angle. And that angle is having a livable planet.

 

Amy Westervelt: Right. I mean, even beyond that, it’s simply not true. Like, even if I didn’t give a shit about climate, I just wanted my gas to be cheaper. Like these things that the industry is suggesting would not do that. You know? So.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah, there’s actually I’ve been watching there’s there’s some new reports coming out on like how these industry groups are spending on Facebook and on Twitter and also kind of tracking some of the misinformation and how how it spreads. And one of the three talking points that I saw in this Guardian article this morning was basically hypocrisy. You know how like environmental reporters or environmentalists or people who care about the planet, how.

 

Amy Westervelt: They you’ll fly on private jets but then complain.

 

Sara Sneath: About your jobs. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You drive a car? Yeah, exactly. And it’s very interesting because like two weeks ago, I took a flyover of like the existing some existing LNG facilities and some of the sites of some proposed LNG facilities and the Lake Charles area, which is basically like, you know, right out there on the Louisiana Texas border. Well, I dunno, like several these flyovers and these little planes which, you know, I guess I’m giving them more ammo for their, their carbon footprint thing, but I don’t even have a car. So like whatever. But they and I’ve never thrown up and I threw up in this one. So I felt like even more like, oh gosh, I feel so bad that I like threw up on this plane. They gave me this opportunity to fly over these facilities. And then I was throwing up for like 10 minutes of the flight, but I was just mentioning it on Twitter. And like, I just got a bunch of like trolls like saying like, you’re so worried about the energy LNG facility, but here you are flying over it and that’s a, you know, gas, you know, plane and, you know, all this stuff. And it’s it’s just like who? Who could report then? Who could care about the planet like a martian? Is that the only person who could, like, report?

 

Amy Westervelt: But that’s not a new thing. Like Exxon’s been doing that since the eighties. You know, like they’ve I mean, I don’t know. I feel like that’s been a that’s been a strategy, like to shut down environmental activity forever. You know, it’s very successful, you know, because people do easily feel like, oh, I can’t say anything because, like, I eat meat or I drive a car or I use a phone or whatever. But it’s like, Yeah, but none of us are making the decisions that, like, dictate what choices people have in society. So exactly. So I reject that. Yeah.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: And if you want to send Sara any sort of hate mail about that, please send it to Brian Khan at B K H A N at protocol dot com. She will get it but it will just it’ll be collated. Hey, Sara. What do you call a reptile that works on a farm?

 

Sara Sneath: Farm? Gator. I don’t know.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: An irrigator.

 

Sara Sneath: Irrigator? Oh, that is pretty good.

 

Amy Westervelt: That’s a good one. Oh, Lord. Lordy, Lord.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, did you hear the one about the law firm with the most intimidating lawyers?

 

Sara Sneath: Litigators.

 

Amy Westervelt: Oh, boy.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: It’s filled with litigators.

 

Amy Westervelt: Oh, man.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: [AD]

 

Amy Westervelt: Okay. So, of course, we can’t talk about jobs in the fossil fuel industry without talking about just transition. And I know, Sarah, you wrote this story about how the offshore workers from the Gulf are the ones that are kind of teaching everybody how to do offshore wind and helping to build that industry. So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that. And like, I don’t know whether whether that’s like just sort of a one off feel good story or if there’s actually like good news for for some kind of job transition happening there.

 

Sara Sneath: I will say that I reported that story like probably like over a year ago. So I’ll just I’ll just say what I remember now. But I do know that like on the East Coast, where some of these some, you know, wind energy has projects have been developed that Louisiana companies have helped with that. And that’s in part because we have like lift boats and the type of boats required to basically like put these thing, you know, work on these things while stable and to also like do geological surveys of the ground, the seafloor, to know if they’re if it’s a good place to put a to put a turbine as far as like, it’s not going to sink or something. And we have shipbuilders here as well. So if we need, you know, bigger ships or or something like that to build these turbines, then we would have that as well. And then here in Louisiana, our governor has requested that I think it’s the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to do like a study of of how where we could put offshore wind. And I do think that there’s like a lot of appetite for it here, especially, you know, and even among the workers, I think they think this is an opportunity where they could, for example, offshore workers have to take the certification, where they have to be in like a mock helicopter crash and they have to get out of the helicopter crash. And it’s like in a pool of water, that certification will be required of offshore wind workers, too. And so I think offshore oil workers feel like they have a leg up in that game. The problem, though, is that all the things I’ve just told you about with, you know, the protections for workers, all those problems will still exist unless we unless they’re changed, you know. So most of these workers are contractors. Most of these workers are not in some sort of union. We don’t have, like, the safety regulations to, you know, to to help them stay uninjured and able to go to work the next day. So I feel like there is a lot of appetite for it, but we face the same dangers and those other forms of energy unless we change something about the workforce, too. Unless we protect them.

 

Amy Westervelt: Mm hmm. That’s so interesting. It reminds me so much of, like, the similar kind of issue with the way that that electrification is sort of dependent on extractive industries. And and like some of the same approaches, that fossil fuel extraction has been not exactly the same. It’s but, you know, not as bad. And I think that, you know, there are things that are being addressed earlier on that will hopefully avoid that. But it’s I don’t know, it’s that same kind of thing, right? Of like if we don’t rethink how the whole system works, then we’re just going to be sort of like repeating the same problems with a slightly different flavor. I’m curious about how and whether workers are talking about transition in Louisiana. Like I know I’ve talked to people in Ohio who are kind of like a little bit like fuck your transition. I just want to keep doing my my fossil fuel job. So I just, I don’t know, like, what’s the vibe among workers there? Are they are they kind of like open to and looking for the next thing or are they more resistant to that idea?

 

Sara Sneath: Again, people have a lot of pride in having a job that is hard, that they that they do every day and that provides for their family and and, you know, the whole petro masculinity, I think that’s real. And at one point, it was like I mean, I guess it still is a good paying job. There’s just not very many of them, you know, and then and they’re very dangerous. And I think workers don’t. And the workers I’ve talked to, they they don’t seem to to be too worried about losing their job. I think they they think that they will be useful in a transition, but they themselves don’t want to be vilified as the ones that they’re that they don’t care or that they don’t acknowledge climate change. Some of the workers I’ve talked to said that they they do acknowledge climate change. They do they feel that they themselves are environmentalists. When you work on an offshore rig, you spend more time in nature than almost anyone you know. You’re out there in the Gulf. You get to see like all sorts of great sharks and stuff that right. Swim around the rigs and the and the drill ships. You get to see like the sky without any light pollution. So I think that they think of themselves as as people who care about the environment and like to be outside and who have something to add to a transition.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, for.

 

Sara Sneath: Sure.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. I mean. So yeah. Just to be clear here, I don’t think any of us think that the workers are at fault for anything that the industry is doing. And I think for the most part, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess I’m curious about this because I do. I talked to some people who are kind of like, you know, like this is the job that I can do outside that pays me well. And I would do a different job if that opportunity was presented to me too. Like they don’t feel a huge like identity connection to the fossil fuel industry in particular. And then some people I talk to really do feel that. Identity thing and I’m just I don’t know I’m curious what what you’ve seen for for offshore folks.

 

Sara Sneath: Yeah. The the offshore folks I’ve talked to haven’t really been like that. But but I guess my dad and my brother all are both in the oilfield and on land in Kansas. And my dad is more resistant to the idea of a transition. You know, my dad has always liked cars and vehicles. And so when they were talking about that, like electric F-150, I sent him a link and was like, What do you think about this? You know, like, isn’t this cool? And he was like, if someone someone shows up to my oil rig and one of those electric F-150 is they’re not going to be having a job. I was like, oh, wow. Okay.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Petro masculinity for that ass.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sara you mentioned unions. And I’m curious about that aspect here, too. Like, what do you you know, what do you see the the labor unions doing in Louisiana? And, you know, are they playing this role that unions have kind of been playing the last 20, 30 years, which is to be a real partner in in obstructing climate action? Or do you see. I don’t know. Yeah. Like are are they trying to push companies to, you know, say, get away from contract labor or provide more stability and security for workers or. I don’t know. Yeah. What what role are they playing?

 

Sara Sneath: Well, there really aren’t a lot of unions. And Louisiana, even in some of the jobs on other parts of the country, do have union representation, like at plants, for example. And Louisiana chemical plants don’t always have unions. A lot of them, again, have contract workers. Louisiana is home to one of the longest I think it is the longest lockout of of workers. And that was the BASF, the chemical company, had workers locked out for five and a half years.

 

Amy Westervelt: Wow. Oh, wow.

 

Sara Sneath: That’s why the workers aren’t allowed to work while they’re, like, negotiating the contract of their employment. And during that worker struggle, those workers partnered with Greenpeace. And the phrase Cancer Alley. That’s where that comes from, is the partnership between the union workers for BASF and Greenpeace. And they they partnered to talk about environmental compliance was like a big part of their push at that time. So there is a history, I would say, in, you know, of of these groups working together. But there really isn’t very much of a union workforce in Louisiana anymore.

 

Amy Westervelt: That’s fascinating.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: The fact that there’s so many contractor workers like you were saying earlier, does that have anything to do with the inability to unionize?

 

Sara Sneath: Well, I mean, they I think they got all of us like I think that they all got busted up, you know, and then like, yeah, it’s it’s it’s it’s it’s incredibly hard to unionize these workers and probably some of what, some of it because of like the nature of the, the people who are doing the jobs, you know, they’re they might be coming in from another location. They’re not very, like, organized.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, that’s so interesting. Hmm. So interesting. Well, Sara, is there anything that you’re working on now that you want to that you want to tell us about on this front?

 

Sara Sneath: I want to plug. Yeah, well, I have, like, my notes in front of me. And I think the one other thing that I wanted to talk about that I just didn’t get a chance to hit on was that we were talking about the ways that offshore companies evade liability for for injuries and fatalities. And the one I didn’t get to was this thing called limited liability. And basically, it’s when a company oftentimes companies that own offshore drill ships and it has and it has to do with offshore in general. So it has to be a company that has a ship. So basically, they’re countersuing families that families and people who filed lawsuits for debts and they do that to cap the amount that they will pay out to the value of the ship after. The incident occurred. So so that will limit their payout to to families and to workers who are injured or killed. And last year, this Lyft boat that was owned by Seacor Power. It capsized during a storm and 13 workers died. And Seacor Power has filed this counter lawsuit against the that they’ve done this, the limited liability thing. And so they are capping the value. So basically the countersued, the families of the people who who had workers on the on that ship that died. So it’s it’s pretty tragic. And so it’s actually going to be something to watch with this this incident. It’s something I’m going to be watching for sure. And I have been talking to one of the families who lost someone and the Seacor power incident. And and they’re also they went to the aunt of one of the workers. She she got a hold of me because she read another story of mine where I had talked to Betsy. And they said that the deaths on the Seacor power were not going to count towards their official numbers of offshore worker deaths because, again, they were in transport and they were in state waters when the ship capsized.

 

Amy Westervelt: And then they just don’t count those deaths if they happen in transit to and from a rig.

 

Sara Sneath: That’s right. Yeah.

 

Amy Westervelt: That is so wild. I just it’s like I have to repeat it because it’s so it doesn’t make any sense. Well. They’re on the job and they’ve been injured and or killed on the job. Whether whether they’re like going out to the to the rig at the time or they’re like physically on, it doesn’t seem like it would make any difference. But. Wow.

 

Sara Sneath: And also, I don’t take it. I don’t have to take a ship to work. And I also don’t have to take a helicopter work. I mean, this is this is the nature of this job in particular, you know, and they also don’t count I think I mentioned earlier, heart attacks. And, you know, I think that that’s there’s there’s something concerning about that, too, because obviously you’re very far away from a hospital. If you’re if you’re on an offshore rig. So so the chance of survival of surviving something like that is likely decreased by the fact that you can’t get medical attention right away. Right. And so that’s really problematic. And and these investigations of these incidents also seem to take a very long time. You know, the Seacor power incident happened in April of 2021. So it’s over a year now and we don’t have the investigation report. But just like in my in my reporting of these stories, I mean, it’s amazing, like how, you know, all posts in these stories of Twitter and then people will be like, oh, yeah, everyone I know in this town in south Louisiana, like, has some sort of injury. And like every worker I’ve talked to has had some even, you know, some of them minor. Some minor, but like injury on the job, like everyone, you know, it’s it’s a range. It’s very, very dangerous work. Oil and gas workers and general ones offshore and onshore are six times more likely to be killed on the job than the average U.S. worker.

 

Amy Westervelt: Wow.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: I mean, I wasn’t expecting this to be like a feel good conversation. But that that’s tough to hear.

 

Amy Westervelt: But again, it’s really important to, like, know that as we go into midterms where, you know that in Pennsylvania and Colorado and Texas, you’re going to hear about how how great all these jobs are, you know.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: In this area, they are like the fossil fuel industry really wants them to think that the country will legit fall apart if we move away from them. But they actually kind of suck.

 

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Well, thanks, Sara, for coming on and telling us all these terrible things. I’m just kidding.

 

Sara Sneath: I’m really fun at parties. I promise.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Especially because you know so much about alligator alligators. Like, what do dehydrated alligators drink?

 

Amy Westervelt: Gatorade.

 

Sara Sneath: Gatorade. Yes. That’s good okay yeah that was good.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Amazing. Great job, Amy. No, seriously. Thank you, Sara, for coming. This was a great conversation. Really necessary. So thank you.

 

Sara Sneath: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Hot take is a Crooked Media production.

 

Amy Westervelt: It’s produced by Ray Peng and mixed and edited by Juels Bradley. Our music is by Vasilis Fotopoulus. Thimali Kodakara is our consulting producer and our executive producers are Mary Annaïse Heglar, Michael Martinez and me Amy Westervelt.

 

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Special thanks to Sandy Girard, Ari Schwartz, Kyle Seglin and Charlotte Landes for production support and to Amelia Montooth for digital support.

 

Amy Westervelt: You can follow the show on Twitter at Real Hot Take. Sign up for our newsletter at Hot Take Pod dot com and subscribe to Crooked Media video channel at YouTube.com slash Crooked Media.