Bob Hardey, mayor of Westlake, Louisiana, is watching a video of a groundbreaking ceremony honoring the expansion of Sasol, the South Africa–based petrochemical giant. At sixty, Hardey is a vital, athletic, balding man, boyish in manner, eyes fixed on the video with irrepressible delight.
Sasol is investing $21 billion in a 3,000-acre energy complex that will be the single largest foreign direct-investment manufacturing project in U.S. history. It is part of an even larger planned multicompany investment totaling $84 billion spread over sixty-six industrial projects in southwest Louisiana over the next five years. A “Qatar on the Bayou,” The Wall Street Journal called it, consisting of “new cities of fertilizer plants, boron manufacturers, methanol terminals, polymer plants, ammonia factories and paper-finishing facilities.”
Mayor Hardey is the seventh speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony we are watching replayed on the video in his office. “I didn’t have a thing written down,” he tells me, “but I thought I should look like I did.” An instrumentation foreman at Phillips 66 before running for mayor of Westlake, Hardey hasn’t given many public speeches. “So I just got up there with my iPad. It had a picture of my wife, so I looked at her.” He passes me his iPad to show me the image of his dark-haired, smiling wife.
Westlake has been home to four generations of Hardeys, he says on the video. A road there bears his family name. He, his father, and his son have worked in local plants, as he hopes his grandson will. But things here, he adds, will have to change. He and his family are deeply, personally committed to welcoming business development to the community.
“My son and his wife have dreamed a long time about building their own home. At last in 2015 they were in the middle of building it here in Westlake, near my wife and me. I was helping my son put in his plumbing. Then he told me Sasol needed his land. It wanted him to sell and move. I got up from my plumbing and said, ‘Son, I’ll help you put in plumbing in your next house.’ ”
Westlake is a sprawling, gray expanse of smokestacks rising from immense steel-girded fortresses, with a row of enormous, round, white, flat-topped storage tanks, which, illuminated at night, looks like a strangely beautiful great emerald city. But there is often a chemical odor.
“They say, ‘Ah, Westlake, y’all got that smell,’ ” Hardey continues in his speech. “I say, ‘Man, that smells like rice and gravy.’ ” The audience laughs knowingly, and applauds for him more loudly than for other speakers.
I wanted to meet with Mayor Hardey so I could better understand the point of view of many small-town, working people, especially in the South, who embrace the interests of oil as their own, and view criticism of fracking as misdirected. Why in Calcasieu Parish, which was among the most polluted in the nation, was I meeting so many people who felt environmentalism was a liberal cause? Why, in the second poorest state, one with ill health and poor schools, did people disparage government help?
Among my Tea Party friends, the mention of Sasol was often accompanied by the word “billion,” as in a $7 billion investment for the ethane cracker, a $14 billion investment for the gas-to-liquids plant. It conveyed power, importance, and prosperity.
Westlake and Lake Charles had recently become ground zero in a surprising new gold rush for natural gas. The gas could be sucked from the ground, piped to plants, processed into various chemical feed stocks, and piped out to still other plants, which manufactured items including Frisbees, plastic hair brushes, garden hoses, steering wheels, computer cases, Bubble Yum, bed liners, medical gowns, jet fuel, wasp spray, grocery bags, and Hershey bars.
After our talk, Mayor Hardey drives me around Westlake to give me a sense of what the Sasol expansion will mean. It’s a two-square-mile town surrounded by land zoned “heavy industrial” and indeed inhabited by industry.
Westlake has a weekly newspaper, one high school, one middle school, two elementary schools, four banks, and eighteen churches. We pass a Family Dollar store, auto repair shops, a rib-eye-and-burger bar, and the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel. Hardey can already envision which buildings will come down and which others will go up.
“See that Assembly of God church?” he asks. “Sasol bought it for $2.5 million, will tear it down, and build over it. They paid $4 million for First Baptist. It’s as if money is no matter. They need to enlarge the road to haul in heavy equipment.”
“See that?” Hardey is pointing out the window. “That’s a Methodist church. The deacon overbid, wanted $1.3 million. Sasol backed away from the table. Now the state may declare eminent domain and give it to Sasol, which will tear it down. The congregation may not get a penny.”
Hardey’s two daughters and son all lived within blocks of him in Westlake in large, shrub-lined suburban homes. His brother had lived nearby but recently accepted Sasol money and moved. Hardey’s parents, in their eighties now, were planning to remain as Sasol moved in, zoning land heavy industrial around them.
Hardey has embraced the changes and shares with me his vision of a new Westlake, one 25 to 30 percent larger in population. “See that park? I’d like to double it. And that golf course? We could put in tasteful housing for executives and professionals coming in.”
But some of his grand vision glosses over possible problems now troubling local residents, like plans to create “man camps” to house the estimated 5,000 temporary construction workers. Residents don’t want the man camps near them, Hardey says.
Hardey describes another dilemma: “The previous mayor handed me a deficit budget. So Westlake is broke. Meanwhile, Sasol hasn’t given me a dime. We’re right in the middle of their expansion, but mostly, they don’t actually need our land, except for some heavy-haul throughways.” Westlake needs money, but it’s unclear whether Sasol will come through.
Mayor Bob Hardey of Westlake, Louisiana. Frank Dicesare Photography
Seen as an environmental curse to many, the fracking boom represents opportunity to Mayor Hardey and others I talked to. Within the South, the poorest region in the nation, Louisiana is now perched to become the proud center of an industrial renaissance, a shiny new buckle in the nation’s energy belt.
Leading economists are forecasting for Louisiana one of the highest growth rates in the country. The new jobs will be highly paid. Salaries for permanent workers will hover around $80,000, plus benefits. As a carpenter in Louisiana you can earn about $33,000; as a truck driver, $46,000; and as an elementary school teacher, $34,000.
And it isn’t just jobs. Fracking could strengthen American foreign policy. Instead of importing oil from unstable or authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, the United States can extract natural gas from its own soil.
But missing in all the euphoria is any public mention of the new sources of pollution. In my hour and a half with Mayor Hardey, that topic didn’t arise. Hadn’t Lake Charles been through an investment rush before, and hadn’t it resulted in the horrendous pollution?
“The Sasol plant alone is expected to emit eighty-five times the state’s ‘threshold’ rate of benzene each year,” Dennis Berman wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “It will also produce massive streams of carbon dioxide and treated water.”
Sasol also sought and received permission to use public water—thirteen million gallons a day of relatively clean water from the Sabine River. This it would use, pollute, and dump back in the Calcasieu River. In addition, the state granted Sasol permission to emit an estimated ten million tons of new greenhouse gases every year. No effort at carbon capture was proposed, and now that the door was open, more companies were submitting similar proposals, anticipating similar approval.
“How about the issue of water use?” I ask Hardey. “The companies are in compliance,” he answers, and indeed they were. The state had okayed it.
Meanwhile, the city government of Lake Charles launched its own Ozone Advance Program, which focused exclusively on what private citizens could do. They could drive shorter routes in their cars or walk. They could quit idling their car engines. The plan called for a “school flag program”—green for good, yellow for moderate, red for high-ozone—to let “the community know that . . . if you have somebody that has difficulty breathing, today’s not a good day to be outside.”
The heady excitement of the fracking boom hides some deeply important—and little discussed—political choices. In the last Louisiana oil boom, from 1928 to 1932, during the Great Depression, Louisiana governor Huey Long, the progressive demagogue—the Kingfish, as he was called—taxed oil companies, using that money to put a “chicken in every pot,” give out free textbooks to schoolchildren, create evening literacy courses for adults, and build roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Before succumbing to the lure of oil money himself, Long embraced the ideal of an activist government that lifted the poor and added to the common good.
By contrast, from 2007 to 2015, Lousiana governor Bobby Jindal drew $1.6 billion from schools and hospitals to give to companies as “incentives.” This strategy put some chickens in some pots, of course, and indirectly took them away from others. Like nearly everyone I talk to, Mayor Hardey twice voted for two-term Governor Jindal.
When I ask Hardey about his political orientation as a moderate Republican, he immediately answers, “I’ve had enough of ‘poor me.’ As he explains: “I don’t like the government paying unwed mothers to have a lot of kids, and I don’t go for affirmative action. I met this one black guy who complained he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to a local public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota or getting state money not to work.”
As governor, Jindal has reduced state money for “poor me’s.” With the jobs coming in now, we “ought to close the unemployment office,” Hardey declares. “You can get a $15 to $18 [an hour] job flagging”—that is, holding traffic flags around construction sites.
The second of five children, Hardey had learned to stand his ground among friendly competitors for parental attention. And it was rare that he pleaded “poor me.” He had become a beloved and effective defender of his community. But it was industry itself, he felt, that had permitted him to access his own potential, and to become the man he was.
“In grade school and high school,” he tells me solemnly, “I wasn’t anything. I couldn’t comprehend things.” Might he have had an undiagnosed learning disability? I ask. “No,” he replies simply. “I just couldn’t comprehend. And I wasn’t an athlete, either. There was nothing I was good at.” But when he began working for Phillips 66:
“I discovered I could do things. They promoted me from there. When I retired, I was an instrumentation foreman overseeing a lot of operators, and had a salary of $180,000.”
Phillips 66 had done for Hardey what college or the army did for others: helped him discover his native intelligence, feel honored, provide handsomely for his family without leaving his ancestral home.
And Governor Jindal’s $1.6 billion incentive to lure industry to the state? “Good idea,” Hardey says. Sure, these were the richest companies in the world, and Louisiana was a poor state. “But you needed to sweeten the deal to get companies to come to Louisiana instead of Texas,” he explains. “Now my grandson will have a good job here!”
How could Westlake or Lake Charles attract new workers to the area? A 347-page Regional Impact Study, largely funded by Sasol, called for “quality of life” improvements to recruit professional chemists, engineers, and physicists from elsewhere. They had to become highly desirable places to live, with state-of-the-art public schools, innovative art and music programs, magnificent parks, freshly paved sidewalks, clean lakes to swim in, and exciting museums open regular hours.
To attract outside talent for the private sector, it turned out, you needed a thriving public sector. But Governor Jindal had cut money for schools, parks, and pollution control.
Hardey was trying hard to get money from Sasol so he could welcome the newcomers to a more beautiful and upgraded Westlake. But Sasol turned out to be a tough bargainer. Sasol needed water for industrial purposes, and wanted Westlake to dig a new well. But it would pay only 25 percent of the cost, with the State of Louisiana paying the other 75 percent.
For the repaving of heavy haul roadways—on which Sasol was virtually the only heavy hauler—the state, parish, and town (with a grant) paid 90 percent, Sasol, 10 percent. While the Regional Impact Study called for a state-of-the-art public sector in Westlake and Lake Charles, Mayor Hardey had to struggle with the unwelcome thought that Westlake was a “poor me.”
“As mayor I inherited a big town debt,” Hardey says. “Sasol’s heavy-haul trucks are tearing up our roads. We need a new firehouse. We’re a great little town but we’re in terrible shape.”
As Mayor Hardey drives us back to Town Hall, I am beginning to understand more about the context of the right. Companies may try to avoid challenge by moving to communities that tend to be conservative, Republican, Catholic, high school educated, and not activist. In the case of Westlake, one of those very people had become a public-spirited mayor. The plants had allowed Bob Hardey to discover his high intelligence and capacity for leadership, his dignity, in ways his schools had failed to do.
Hardey didn’t see how the federal government had helped him; if anything, its affirmative action policies had almost gotten in his way. But industry had been hard on Hardey, too. “Four generations of Hardeys have lived in Westlake. And now with Sasol expanding,” he tells me, “a lot of my family is forced to move.”
His voice softens.
“We have a family cemetery in the middle of the Sasol expansion. It’s shaped like a triangle, and the land all around it is zoned ‘heavy industrial’ now. So our family cemetery will be surrounded by Sasol on all sides. But the company has promised to give us access. My grandmother is buried there, eighty-six when she died. And a nine-month-old baby girl we lost is there, too. I want to be buried in that cemetery.”
Arie Russell Hochschild is the author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. This article was excerpted with permission from the book, published in September by The New Press.