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Ocean Currents

From Disaster Recovery to Climate Justice

A conversation with climate justice lawyer Colette Pichon Battle.

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© Courtesy Colette Pichon Battle

Ocean Conservancy is reflecting on the work we’ve done to restore the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy. These are conversations with women of color who are leading change for the Gulf of Mexico. Click here to read about Keala J. Hughes and Frances Roberts-Gregory. 

Colette Pichon Battle is a Louisiana native whose identity as an African American and Creole woman is tied to the Gulf of Mexico. She is the founder, president and Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP), where she works to advance ecological equity and climate justice for communities of color on the frontline of climate change. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster continues to affect the people of Louisiana. It continues to be relevant in Pichon Battle’s work today.

She recounts her first reaction to the news of the tragic explosion in April 2010:

“Most of us who live in South Louisiana are children or somehow families of oil and gas workers. My dad worked on the rig, my uncle worked on the rig, my cousins worked on the rig. So you hear about a rig exploding, and you think about the men and women and families that will never be the same, because of that moment. And you know who they are, because they’re the members of your family. There are no corporate executives working out on the rig. Those are boys from our neighborhood working out there, from Louisiana, from Houston, you know. So my first reaction was just deep sadness for the sacrifice that workers have to pay to ensure the comfort of the privileged on this planet.”

For the past thirteen years, Pichon Battle has worked with local communities, national funders and elected officials on equity in the Gulf Coast. In the aftermath of the BP oil disaster, she began to question why the drilling disaster even occurred, and how it was connected to other disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

“Why are we in that deep of an ocean? What’s the connection?”

As people on the Gulf Coast were still recovering from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, Pichon Battle began to see patterns in how these disasters affected the same communities over and over. Making connections between the fossil fuel industry, natural disasters and climate change shifted Pichon Battle’s disaster recovery focus into climate justice work, which then facilitated black and indigenous alliance-building.

“We began to develop [a curriculum called Climate Justice 101] that connected the industries that many of us have depended on for our livelihoods to the natural disasters that we were all experiencing and having to live through and survive, and really consciously, our role in our own disaster. We connected the BP disaster and Katrina as part of a broader and longer line of climate disasters, both at the extraction portion but also at the long-term climate impact, like more extreme weather.”

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Pichon Battle pictured with Gulf community organizers. © Rudi Navarra

As an attorney, Pichon Battle saw how the federal government approved the use of dispersants to break down oil, despite the toxicity to humans and wildlife, “without asking the communities who are being directly impacted, and specifically leaving out the voices of indigenous communities.”

Eventually, Pichon Battle and her staff at the GCCLP began to wonder, “why aren’t these sovereign nations at the table to decide what is or is not sprayed on their [bodies], their food systems and their waterways that they eat out of?” This led them to begin work with indigenous communities in a new capacity—by bringing indigenous land sovereignty and indigenous genocide into the conversation.

The GCCLP’s work on the BP disaster resulted in indigenous and black communities coming together to support each others’ issues. “That work turned into a lot of black folks getting behind a lot of native folks who were seeking federal recognition, because if they had federal recognition, they would have been at the table with the governor and the government to decide what gets sprayed on them. But because they are not federally recognized by the U.S. government, they didn’t have a say.”

“So this oil drilling disaster turned into an alliance building around tribal sovereignty, which, who would have ever thought that? But that’s what it required.”

Pichon Battle was disappointed by the clean-up and response to the BP oil disaster. She recalls some of the clean-up actions taken, which included putting down boom, spraying dispersants and burning the oil off the water “where literally the ocean was on fire.” From her vantage point, it just made matters worse. “We [were] using an antiquated understanding of how to mitigate these disasters in the most sophisticated moment of U.S. history, which is just appalling.”

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“ The biggest thing we can do is to stop drilling in that kind of deep water. I mean, I’m not even suggesting to stop drilling in shallow water. I’m saying stop drilling in ultra-deep water where we clearly don’t have the desire to protect what we’re not going to be able to clean up.”

Colette Pichon Battle
Founder, President and Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy

But Pichon Battle explained that this will require a community-defined just transition toward a more regenerative economy. “We also know that it’s our communities that work on those rigs, so we can’t just shut everything down as it’s our people that will lose their jobs.”

“So what’s the answer? That’s a complicated question that requires a community to decide.”

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© Gulf South Rising

Pichon Battle’s commitment to her work is one amazing story of communities uniting in the name of climate justice. In this time of climate disaster, it is stories like these that give us hope. Her call to action for all of us to come together is really important to us as RAY Fellows from the South, because with its history of disaster, the South has a true need for climate justice. In many ways, the Gulf Coast can be a leader in the movement for climate justice, especially with these alliances as examples of the power we build when we join forces.

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