Louisiana Coastal Restoration: Depending on the kindness of strangers

By Mike Stagg

For five decades Louisiana’s political leaders have recognized that our state paid a significant price for the oil and gas exploration and production that has taken place along our coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. For roughly the same time, those leaders have decided that the way to repair that damage was to have someone else pay for it.

Like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams‘ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Louisiana has been content to depend on the kindness of strangers to repair the damage that decades of oil and gas production has inflicted on our wetlands, coastal marshes, and (after the BP Gulf Gusher) our fisheries.

The first hard evidence of this came late in Edwin Edwards‘ second term as governor. Edwards and the Legislature enacted and voters approved the First Use Tax which ostensibly sought to tax all oil and gas that was used (as in refined and/or processed) in Louisiana. It was a straight up attempt to get the rest of the country to pay for damage to our wetlands. But, the law took Sen. Russell Long’s famous tax verse to the extreme, carving in so many exceptions to Louisiana produced oil and gas that in 1981 the Supreme Court of the United States ultimately declared it unconstitutional.

Edwards’ successor, Dave Treen, came up with a more straightforward and probably legal approach to the tax. He called it the Coastal Wetlands Environmental Levy (CWEL). Like Edwards’ First Use Tax, Treen’s CWEL was a tax regime that would be used to tax the rest of the country ostensibly to repair the wetlands from damage done to our wetlands and coast in the process of providing fuel for the national economy. Treen’s plan suffered a political death when the Louisiana House of Representatives failed to muster the 2/3 vote necessary to send a constitutional amendment to a vote of the people.

By the time Mike Foster became governor in 1995, the damage to the coast had become more stark. The state’s business and political leadership remained committed to the idea of having the rest of the country pay for the manmade portion of the coastal damage, but the arena shifted to public relations. Like so many attempts at reform during Foster’s tenure, Americas Wetland came late. The America’s Wetland Foundation shifted the work to the private sector, though the goal remained the same — to convince the rest of the country that it was in their interest to help fix Louisiana’s coast. Not surprisingly, the effort has drawn significant sponsorship from the oil and gas industry — the industry responsible for some significant share of the damage that needs to be repaired.

In the wake of the Federal Flood of New Orleans after Katrina in 2005, billions in Federal disaster recovery dollars — including funds for a massive upgrade to levees in the New Orleans area — poured in. Coastal restoration projects were identified but federal appropriations for those projects has not materialized. Changes won by former US Senator Mary Landrieu in the state/federal offshore royalty split will eventually drive more money to coastal restoration projects but not fast enough to keep up with the accelerating rate of wetlands loss.

The 2010 BP blowout and gusher in the Gulf drove home the point about the risks associated with offshore drilling. Damage to the Gulf from that disaster will be unfolding for decades. Our coastal restoration efforts will get several billion dollars from the fines and penalties that BP has paid as a result of that explosion, but the 2012 iteration of the Coastal Master Plan carried a price tag of about $90 Billion (over 50 years, including inflation). A legally mandated update of the plan is now under way.The coastal restoration bucket will remain mostly empty even after the BP money is available for projects.

But, the political brawl that followed the 2013 lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East against about 100 oil and gas companies for damage to wetlands allowed the other shoe to drop on the state’s long-running DuBois routine. That shoe, the fierce fight against the lawsuit led by Governor Bobby Jindal and the industry, was that Louisiana has staunchly refused to ask the oil and gas industry to accept any financial liability for the damage that their work has inflicted on the state. Not only are we depending on the kindness of strangers, we appear to be content to let the southern third of the state sink into the Gulf of Mexico (see the image at the top) rather than inconvenience the patrons and funders of Louisiana’s political class.

Hold the oil and gas industry accountable? We’d rather drown, thank you.

This graphic by Dan Swenson accompanied the May 1, 2016 cover story in The Advocate by Bob Marshall. The image shows what six-feet of sea level rise will do to Louisiana coastal communities and our coastline. The area in blue is the Gulf of Mexico. The dashed line is roughly where the state's coastline is today. Note how much of US 90/I-49 between Lafayette and New Orleans is inundated.
This graphic by Dan Swenson accompanied the May 1, 2016 cover story in The Advocate by Bob Marshall. The image shows what six-feet of sea level rise will do to Louisiana coastal communities and our coastline. The area in blue is the Gulf of Mexico. The dashed line is roughly where the state’s coastline is today. Note how much of US 90/I-49 between Lafayette and New Orleans is inundated.

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